December 2006

Juan Formell y Los Van Van
presented by Carranza
produced by Okokan and Billy Bryans Productions
December 9, 2006KoolhausToronto
Cuba Cuba Cuba — en Toronto
by Joyce Corbett | Photos by Roger Humbert
I was in a taxi in Havana when some music on the radio caught my ear. “Do you know who that is?” I asked the driver. He turned to me, smiling broadly, “Los Van Van!” he exclaimed, “you like it?” “Yeah, it’s great!”, I answered. “Really? you like it a lot?” and as I re-affirmed that I did, he grasped the volume knob between thumb and forefinger and rolled it to the right. The tension of his broad grin erupted in a laugh of irrepressible joy as the cab lurched along the Malécon through sheets of water; ocean waves hurdling the breakwall, their thunderous pounding merging with the radio waves; sheets of notes, rhythm and water, confused in a sea of sound. Intense, invigorating, alive!

Experiencing Los Van Van live also proved an intense, vivifying experience, though this reporter would have liked that volume knob turned back just a bit — fortunately, I had gone equipped with ear plugs. Setting us up for the show, the stage was framed by two large screens showing a documentary of another popular Cuban band, Charanga Habanera, and DJ Carlitos was providing the tunes. Café Cubano, a Toronto band of Cuban immigrants, provided a great opening act for Los Van Van. They were pumped, excited and exciting as they danced, sang and played to the moving crowd of 2,000 or so with what seemed superhuman energy. Sangre Latina expanded the cultural breadth of the event with their dance, both balletic and Afro-Cuban. And when Juan Formell and the members of Los Van Van flooded the stage, the audience cheered ecstatically. The press release had stated that Juan Formell was bringing a seventeen-piece band but there were far more than seventeen people on stage. Some of the extra people grooving in the back corner seemed to be part of the entourage and a few of the promoters were back there for a while, but also, Yankar Gonzales and Roberto Linares from Café Cubano joined in, playing with the band.

Juan Formell y Los Van Van
This was history in the making and it felt like it. Expectations were high, and they would be met. After thirty-seven years of topping the Cuban charts, playing in Japan, Latin America, Europe and the United States, Los Van Van was finally playing in Toronto. It was their first Canadian tour, one night in Toronto and one in Montréal. When Juan Formell and Cesar Pedroso formed Los Van Van in 1969, they were an overnight sensation. They created a new style of Cuban music called songo, mixing up traditional instrument groupings by using an African rhythm section with the violins of charanga, adding a trombone section, electric instruments and singers. The lyrics of their 1997 hit “Te Pone La Cabeza Mala” describe their mix of musical styles: “timba con (with) rumba y (and) rock; mambo con conga y pop; salsa con mozambique; y clave de guaguanco; cumbia con jazz con swing; songo con samba y beat; merengue con bomba y son; y clave de guaguanco”.

The bandmembers have changed over the years and Cesar Pedroso has left to lead his own hugely popular band, yet Los Van Van (El tren de la salsa) is still moving full steam ahead. They are an institution from which other bands have sprung and a training ground for young musicians. Los Van Van continues to attract new talent — and crowds in the thousands.

Most of the audience at Kool Haus was from the Toronto area but many were Americans who had planned their trips months ago. At this point in time Cuban musicians are not allowed into the U.S. There were groups of salsa dancers from Boston and Seattle, a group of people from the University of Michigan, people from New York, from Rochester, some all the way from San Francisco, and even some from Cuba’s neighbour, Miami, where Los Van Van has played many times in the past to huge crowds.

From the opening song, “Chapeando”, through various Van Van hits, Weather Report's’”Birdland”, a sing-along “Hey Jude” and some new Los Van Van material, to the encore, “Te Pone La Cabeza Mala”, the energy emanating from the stage was phenomenal, as was the energy on the dance floor. Juan Formell y Los Van Van played for about two and a half hours, producing a continuous stream of sound from one song to the next, switching speeds and styles without a hitch. With each song they seemed to get even better as the music became more African, or did it? The trombone section was phenomenal, but so was Samuel Formell on drum kit and timbales. Julio Cruz was playing the biggest guiro I have ever seen, probably the only way he could hope to be heard in such a large band, even with a properly-balanced sound system such as they had. The musicians were all top-notch and the front-line singers, besides great voices, all had a great rapport with the audience and an ability to improvise with ease.

Juan Formell y Los Van Van’s big sound really has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. I have heard recently that the part of the cerebellum that processes music is close to the part that controls movement. Los Van Van seem to have found the sweet spot in there, making music that makes you move. It’s hard to stop when this band gets you going. Couples caught in the perpetual motion of the rhythm, would finally break away and leave the dance floor exhausted, drying rivulets of sweat with paper towels from the bar. With the dancing, the enthusiasm and the interaction between Los Van Van and the crowd who shouted responses, clapped the clave and climbed on stage to dance with the singers against the backdrop of a huge Cuban flag, it was like being in Havana.

Juan Formell

Yenisel Valdes

'Mayito' Rivera
It was a great night and I hope to see Juan Formell y Los Van Van come back soon. In the meantime, they are planning to launch a DVD in 2007, Aqui el que baila gana, that will include a documentary and a live concert at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana. Thanks so much to Carranza, Billy Bryans, Sophie Giraud and everyone who worked so hard to bring them here and to make the night such a success.
Juan Formell y Los Van Van
Juan Climaco Formell Cortina – Leader, bassist and singer
Samuel Formell Alfonso – drums
Hugo Antonio Morejon Gomez – trombone
Alvaro Collado Martinez – trombone
Edmundo Carlos Pina Machin – trombone
Pedro Cesar Fajardo Alzaga – violin
Irving Roberto Frontela Rico – violin
Jorge Leliebre Sorzano – flute, ewi, vocals (back-up)
Roberto Carlos Rodriguez Valdes – piano
Boris Ernesto Luna Mendez – keyboard
Manuel Labarrera Hernandez – congas
Julio Eladio Noroña Cruz – guiro
Pavel Molina Ruiz – bass
Roberto Hernandez Acea – vocals
Mario Enrique Rivera Godines – vocals
Yenisel Valdes Fuentes – vocals
Abdel Rasalps Sotolongo – vocals

We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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