For some years now, Cuba's emblematic salsa orchestra, Los Van Van directed by Juan Formell, has been called "The Train." They have earned this nickname for being at the top of popularity in the country. Formed on December 4, 1969, Los Van Van was a challenge for its predecessors and established guidelines for its founders and for all those who followed. Outstanding musicians worldwide have declared themselves in debt of Formell's contributions in evolving the sound and composition of the group.
During their 37 years, they have remained one of the most popular groups for Cuban dancers no mean feat in a country where rhythm forms part of the cultural imperative and where popular music groups are abundant. Los Van Van has become perhaps the most important group in Cuba since the magnificent 1940's and 50's of the Cuban musical panorama.
Formell is an innovator, a restless musician, drawing from diverse sources. His talent allows him to mix, recreate and deliver a distinctive sound which is immediately recognizable from the first note. Los Van Van became his project of communion, exploration and challenge.
Juan Formell, born in Havana in 1942, was influenced by the Beatles and by such diverse genres and styles as Son, jazz, rock and roll, and Cha Cha Chá. After his debut with a traditional septet, he worked with a police band and then the Orchestra of Radio and Television until finally playing in Elio Reve's Group (exponent of the Changüí genre). It was here where Formell started to brew what he had inside. He started making changes to the typical Charanga selection of instruments, giving it a new sound with the introduction of the bass and electric guitar and replacing the traditional timba drums with a standard drum kit. Little by little he added elements such as synthesizers and trombones and made transformations in the voices used. This was how he formed his own project with its unmistakable sound.
Just prior to the salsa boom which spread throughout the whole continent with New York's Fania, Los Van Van had already consolidated the Songo rhythm, a combination of Son, Yoruba and modern pop. And as Formell says, with the blessing of the Afro-Cuban saints, they were ready to become the leader among the great salsa orchestras.
Their repertoire can be characterized as a collection of the life stories of this country, like a receptacle of popular history with the grace of the Cuban people. The population will take a Los Van Van phrase and it will hit the streets as a new popular saying.
However, the director counters that it is the other way around and that the people are the ones in charge of nurturing his lyrics from daily life.
In 1999, the enormously successful record, Permiso, Ileg6 Van Van ("With your permission, Los Van Van has arrived") came out and won a Grammy in the category of salsa music. Unfortunately, with conflicts with their record company, there were problems with later recordings. After four years outside the studio, the group suffered hardships such as the departure of important members as well as health problems for the director. For many, The Train had arrived at its final station.
Samuel, Formell's son and also a drummer, took charge. New members filled the vacancies with great dignity and talent and they were able to stamp their own character and direction on the group.
When they cut the record Chapeando, it was clear that The Train was still as solid as iron and had many years left to go before stopping. Its thirteen songs were composed mostly by Juan Formell with contributions by Samuel, Cándido Fabré, Roberto Carlos "Cucurucho" and Jorge Díaz, and others by the gypsy singer, Diego EI Cigala, together with Mayito Rivera, Roberto "Robertón" Hernández, Yeni and Lele (the current voices of Van Van).
Los Van Van has performed concerts around the world. In the latter part of 2006 they held three concerts in Canada on just their second visit to the country. Many fans traveled from the US, where the band is widely popular and is considered one of the best salsa groups, to get to the show.
"Waiting to return was a good thing" said Robertón after the excellent welcome they had in Canada.
Los Van Van continues its run and luckily for us, everything is going smoothly. As the song says: Ven ven ven, pa' que tú veas como está EI Tren or "Come, come, come, so you can see how the Train runs."