Juan Formell and Remembering the Cuban Music of the 70s

Irina Pino

Juan Formell at the National Arts School (ENA) in 1994.  Photo: David Garten
Juan Formell lecturing at the National Arts School (ENA) in 1994. Photo: David Garten

HAVANA TIMES —We had parties in our house nearly every Saturday during the 70s. My brother Jesus and his friends were the ones who organized the noisy gatherings.

A record-player, two enormous speakers and countless records were the starting point.

There were always three or four 24-packs of beer, sandwhiches and plenty of music to “sweeten up” the place, as they say here.

I was only ten, so they pretty much forced me to stay in my room, so that I wouldn’t bother anyone. I was a kind of voyeur, listening to the sound of the music and the raw energy that slipped into my room through the cracked door. The door wasn’t enough to keep me from enjoying and even dancing alone, in the bedroom next to the living room.

Later, I would slip out of the room and run into the arms and legs of the dancers who, while throwing together casino choreographies, enjoying the songs of Los Van Van, sung by a very young Juan Formell, whose numbers were high in the hit parade of Cuba’s radio at the time.

There were a good many records by Los Van Van in our collection at home, and they were played along with those of the Beatles, such that these two music giants met and fused in Havana. These colossal bands, to be sure, didn’t have much in common, but the songs of the Cuban and English band were played in succession at my house, as though set in a music duel.

Oh Marilu and Hey Jude seemed to have points in common. I think Formell drew from the melodies of the Boys from Liverpool and vice-versa. Even though the young English musicians never confirmed it, they may have been influenced by our music. Something of an “unconscious symbiosis” may have taken place.

Pastorita wants to get it on with me, I don’t know why…, was one of my favorite lyrics, because I thought the title was funny.

The way the Van Van’s notes sounded gave Formell’s orchestra a distinctive seal. It sounded different from other bands at the time. It was popular dance music, but it had elegance and refinement.

My house became a sea of moving arms and legs, bodies that turned in complicated dance-moves. Long, loose hair, sweating faces, authentic Cuban music, later baptized as “salsa.”

It wasn’t exactly “salsa” – it was merely a son that had been revolutionized by more dynamic rhythms, with lyrics of everyday life using common phrases. They were musical stories that are still remembered and fill dancers with joy.

Our dear Juan Formell, yet another Cuban music legend, will continue to lead us in dance.

One thought on “Juan Formell and Remembering the Cuban Music of the 70s

  • Maybe I started out on the wrong end of Cuban music. Reggaeton… I had met a lady who is a Cuban musician who goes by the name of Telmary (Diaz) Who now lives in Canada. She was very kind and gave me one of her CDs. A Diario. And on there was a great song on it called Marilu… And in the credits it mentioned Los Van Van… I wondered who was this band? I really liked this song and I later found out that it was not a new song but a sample of a Juan Fromell song. I now have quite the collection of all kinds of Cuban music. And many from Juan Fromell and Los Van Van… That song opened up my ears to Cuban music and to a real great artist .

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