ORQUESTA LOS VAN VAN… Una Escuela de Estrellas Cubanas

Los VAN VAN … A School of Cuban Stars

Last modified: February 4, 2023

With its unusual format that combines trombones, strings, flutes with traditional instruments; and the original arrangements that have been made since its creation, the mythical Cuban group baptized as Los Van Van, over these 50 years of artistic life, has trapped with its Cuban energy the public of Latin America, the United States of America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. 

Founded on December 4th, 1969 by the famous musician, composer and director Juan Formell (Havana, 1942-2014), National Prize of Music (2003), Los Van Van constituted a field of essential experimentation and creativity for this ARTIST, whose trajectory led him to work since the beginning as a double bass player in the Orchestra of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television and in diverse groups of son and jazz. His work in the Orquesta Revé represented a very important step in his artistic life, in the search for his spirit of renewal. 

In Los Van Van he “sculpted” a different style of music when he incorporated the electronic keyboard, the bass, the violins, the electric guitar; in addition to the vocal work that he replaced with the typical voices from the quartets, among other aspects. All of this consolidated a different, contagious rhythm which marked new courses in our popular music, creating harmonic/ melodic tones, different in their sonority.

The history of this famous group is marked by great names of the Cuban music, since it has been like a School of Stars. The list is long: José Luis Quintana (Changuito), Raúl Cárdenas (El Yulo), César Pedroso (Pupi), José Luis Cortés (El Tosco), Fernando Leyva,  Jesús Linares, Orlando Canto, Miguel Ángel Rasalps (El Lele); the singers Pedrito Calvo, Lázaro Morúa, Ángel Bonne, Mayito Rivera, Yeni Valdés; the jazz pianist Cucurucho Valdés, and many others… All of them have been part of this success.

Once, while speaking about the way in which he selected the themes to create, Formell explained that for him the story he was going to tell came first, and he would pick it up anywhere; because “I was never dissociated from the people’s life, because I like to interact with the people, to wait in a line, to listen to conversations. The line for the bread is ideal: you can hear amazing things there…! The Cuban has the virtue of being able sometimes to summarize a very important matter in only one phrase. And from this phrase I occasionally create a story; and after I have the story, there comes something essential for me, the montuno. I think that the quality of the chorus is decisive for the future of a dancing piece. So I begin by the end, I look first for the montuno that shakes the dancer; and as well as there is vocation, destiny, coincidence in life, there is a mysterious thing called inspiration that comes one day -I don’t know exactly from where-, and I begin to compose the song”.

Concerning the discography, the triumphs are numerous: Juan Formell y Los Van Van (1974), El Baile del Buey Cansao (1982), Anda, Ven y Muévete (1984), La Habana Sí (1985), Eso Que Anda (1986), Nosotros Los Del Caribe (1987), Songo (1988) which opened up a new stage. Azúcar (1992), Te Pone La Cabeza Mala (1997), Llegó…Van Van (Van Van is Here) (1999), En El Malecón De La Habana (2002), Vive (2004), Chapeando (2004), Arrasando (2009), La Maquinaria (2011), La Fantasía (2014), El Legado (2018)…His music is to be danced, although it can also be listened to with the same pleasure a dancer can feel, because there is nothing monotonous or vulgar in it, even though Formell uses cunning irony and local customs in his songs to create a sort of chronicle of our reality. That’s why his lyrics give a social context with stories that narrate the nice/cheerful of everyday Cuban life.

Among all acknowledgements received by Los Van Van there is:  The Grammy Award (2002), Best Salsa Album, with Llegó…Van Van (Van Van is Here). At the Womexs Fair, one of the most well known in the world of international music, Juan Formell y Los Van Van were recognized as the winners of the Prize to the Artist (2013); while in 2017, they were nominated to the Grammy’s with the album La Fantasía: homenaje a Juan Formell, in the category of the Best Tropical Album, among others. It is not a coincidence that the Afro-Caribbean music, in all its expression, emerges from the musicians. Los Van Van gives no respite… They are indefatigable and have the strange virtue of knowing the limits. They always keep the finger on the pulse of the dancer… His son, Samuel Formell, is the current director of the orchestra.

Toni Piñera
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Journalist for more than 30 years at the Granma newspaper, art and dance critic, professor at the National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro, curator of Cuban art exhibitions (former director of the La Acacia gallery, Havana), poet.

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