Los Van Van

The Pan American Games will hit Toronto in July 2015. As part of the countdown towards this historic event, Cuba’s top dance band, Los Van Van performed in the city on July 12, 2014. Now, they're back!

Los Van Van was formed in 1969, by Juan Formell. The bass player and bandleader created ‘Songo’, a fusion of Son (African rhythms and Spanish guitars) with Charanga (played with flute and violins). To this mix, he added a drum kit, horns, electric bass and keyboards. From that point on, there was no turning back.

Some 45 years later, the band continues to listen, to hear and incorporate all manner of international music, from pop and jazz to R&B and rap. The sound however, always remains essentially Cuban.

African Roots

“The roots are always present,” said current bandleader Samuel Formell, son of Juan, during our phone interview. “The music we play came from Africa with colonization. The African people wrote it and we continue to use its elements.”

The word ‘Songo’ incorporates many ideas. It could make reference to the music ‘son’ or the verb ‘son’ in Spanish, ‘song’ in English, ‘go’ from the band’s name. It could possibly even be a play on ‘Congo.’ The Congolese were the largest group of African peoples brought to Cuba during slavery.

Such play on words and double-entendre is also characteristic of Juan Formell’s lyrics. He claimed that his words were always non-political, only social commentary. However, like calypso from the neighbouring island of Trinidad, much can been communicated, without saying anything directly.

Songo has evolved even further into Timba.

 

With its use of the timbala drum, Timba is funkier, and harder. It pulls even more from Afro-Cuban rumba, as well as batá drumming used in the Santeria religion. These are associated with other significant African influences in Cuba, the Bantu and Yoruba peoples.

Even as players have come and gone from the core group, Los Van Van has always had virtuosic members in the ensemble. In Cuba, high levels of musical accomplishment are a matter of course and not an exception.

“We have a lot of music schools. Children are tested for capacity to study and play music at eight years old. They are chosen due to talent, ear, feel,” said Samuel. Years of training follow. Even with such an education “not all can do what we do. They must have the capacity to write, to compose, to interpret. We test and select.” Los Van Van chooses the best of the best.

Women in Cuban Music

One of the choice picks for the ensemble is Yensel ‘Yeny’ Valdes. In 2001, she became the first female singer in the all-male ensemble. Samuel admits that there have been challenges, including initial protests to her presence from the Cuban public.

There was also the challenge of writing songs that integrated her voice with her co-vocalists, Able ‘Lele’ Rosales, Roberto ‘Guayacan’ Hernandez and Mandy Cantero. He has however ‘found a balance’.

The band continues to conquer the world. Samuel gives much credit to immigration, “Cubans all over the world help us. They present us to others whenever they go to other countries.”

This movement of people has helped lead to regular tours of Europe, the Americas and Australia. “Next up is Africa. We plan to go to Congo and South Africa.” said Samuel.

Success, however, is bittersweet. Samuel played with his father beside him for over 20 years.

Juan Formell died in May of 2014, as the group worked on their newest album ‘La Fantasia’.

Even though Samuel has essentially led the band over the last few years, he still feels the weight of responsibility.

“My father has a legacy”, said the son. “I have to respect the job and the work and I now have to do it by myself.” The new album has been completed and was released this year.

© Gloria Blizzard is a Toronto-based writer

      Photo: Los Van Van,  The interview has been edited and condensed