Cuban salsa godfather keeps his stories real

by Irene Carolina Herrera

Despite the embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba since 1961, the music of this north Caribbean island has somehow made its way into every corner of the earth, including Japan. It is no coincidence that “The Sons of Cuba,” the most recent film from the creators of “Buena Vista Social Club,” culminates in a grand concert by an all-star salsa team on a Tokyo stage.

The increasing number of high-caliber Cuban bands coming to Japan — Bamboleo, NG La Banda, Manolito y su Trabuco — serve as evidence of salsa’s growing popularity. Miwa Okubo of Latin American music promoter Sirena Music recently pointed out that there were only two salsa instructors and two salsa clubs in Tokyo back in 1993. Today, the Japanese magazine Salsa 120% lists more than 50 salsa dance instructors and 20 clubs that offer Latin music in the city.

Further proof of salsa’s sway in Japan can be seen at the Tokyo Salsa Festival, which attracts more than 300 onstage dancers every July, and the Isla de Salsa, a summer festival that has been held annually by the Fukuoka-based nonprofit organization Tiempo Iberoamericano led by Santiago Herrera since 1997. This year, the lineup for the two-day event on Nokonoshima Island included two performances by one of Cuba’s most significant exports: Juan Formell y Los Van Van. Journeying to Japan after a 15-year absence, this acclaimed salsa troupe — the first Cuban band to ever win a Grammy — delivered nine concerts in major cities as part of the Vivela Japon! Salsa Tour and captivated audiences with their fusions of charanga, son, jazz and their own original songo and timba style. The contagious nature of their rhythms was clearly displayed at their Aug. 10 performance at Tokyo Studio Coast, where more than 2,000 fans stayed in a dancing mood for over two hours.

“I am very excited to be back, because I know Japanese people really love salsa,” said Juan Formell enthusiastically during an interview at the Cuban Embassy in Tokyo.

His charisma is immediately apparent, and it quickly becomes clear why Formell, at 63, still remains on the cutting edge of Latin American music after more than three decades of performing on the scene. Perpetually restless, he has a natural curiosity about not only everything around him but also about all kinds of musical expression. This is precisely what has driven him to reinvent Cuban roots music and other Caribbean genres such as salsa.

Obviously proud of his heritage, Formell spoke in his native tongue about his need to reside in Cuba, his life as a Van Van and salsa in Japan.

Many Cuban musicians have left the island for political reasons. Did you ever think about leaving?

There were many personal reasons for not leaving Cuba, but perhaps one of the main ones is that I consider myself a storyteller who draws inspiration from reality to tell stories and convert these into song themes. Cuba and its people have always been my source of inspiration. I was born in Cuba and I felt that in order to chronicle social happenings I needed to be part of this society. I wanted to be there to live in Cuba’s reality. I didn’t want to hear it being told by someone else. The idiosyncrasies of Cuban culture inspire me. I walk down the street, see things, hear things, see how people talk, behave, interact and from there, a song is born.

After making Los Van Van the institution that it is today, what would you say is your gift to society?

Making people dance and reflect on their surroundings. I have been making music during one of the most complex historical periods Cuba has ever experienced, and I felt I had a lot to say. I have tried to express it in my music in my own way as I chronicle and construct stories based on daily situations I see on the street. As I stroll about, a certain phrase, an expression or a popular refrain I hear sometimes becomes the theme of a song. Our songs come from the people and speak to the people. I feel Cubans see themselves in the characters and the situations our songs talk about.

What is the secret to Los Van Van’s 35 years of success?

The secret is in making people dance with a certain cadence. I believe it is important to provide the public with danceable music and I have taught the newcomers in our band to always keep this in mind. The public is our barometer. We play once a week in Cuba and are able to see how the people react as we rework our music. There have been times when I have started to experiment with something new and it turns out that when we play it the audience still doesn’t get it, so I have to be patient. At times I have had to wait two or three years before a new musical idea received wide public acceptance.

What do you think about the popularity of salsa in Japan?

In general, I think salsa as a musical genre is really infectious. When I was here in 1989 I went to various places where I saw Japanese people playing salsa and it seemed easy for them to play and dance. I think it’s quite significant that Latin music has had such acceptance on the other side of the world; perhaps this shows that we are not really that far apart.

Did you ever imagine Los Van Van would win a Grammy?

Never. In fact, I was so much in denial that I didn’t even show up, and sent my son Samuel [percussionist and musical director of the band when Juan Formell is not around] to pick up the award.

I remember listening to Los Van Van as I was growing up because my grandparents are Cuban. They would say you were not only a musician, but a real mentor and teacher to younger generations.

Of the original founders of Los Van Van, there are only two of us left still playing in the band — Julio Norona, who plays the guiro [a percussion instrument], and myself. Others have retired because of the intensity of the tours. I myself don’t always go on all of them. However, there are musicians who have been with Los Van Van for 15 years, like my son Samuel. Others have recently come in during these last few years. A new generation is emerging, and these musicians bring with them new ideas that they develop within the band in a collective effort. In this sense it’s like a school; we grow together. Although these newcomer musicians put their ideas forward during the creative process, essentially the compositions and the musical arrangements carry the Los Van Van seal that was imprinted by me. Los Van Van has always had a very distinctive feel. When listeners hear our music they recognize us right away.

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At this point, Samuel Formell, Juan’s son, who appears in the film “The Sons of Cuba,” put his hand over his dad’s shoulder and, with a big grin on his face, reaffirmed his father’s words.

“When you become a member of the band it’s like you learn the secret of becoming a Van Van, so you begin to act like one in the way you play your instrument, arrange or compose. I think once you are a Van Van you will be one forever.”

Van means “to go” in Spanish, and just as their name suggests, Van Van’s indefatigable spirit has kept them in perpetual motion.