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Interview with Juan Formell: Are You no Longer Interested in Reflecting the Cuban Reality?
"We sing about everything, not only love. What happens is that there are stages where the composer nourishes himself on phrases heard on the street, and you use them to write. There was a time when people used to say 'Eso que anda or 'Que se sepa, and you tell a story based on these phrases. Thats a way to make a chronicle.

Another way is to base a story on a theatrical play, as happened with 'La Habana no aguanta más, based on the play 'La Barbacoa, by Abraham Rodríguez. Or once I was asked to write a song for the movie 'Los pájaros tirándole a la escopeta and I wrote 'Y qué tú crees.

Times are different and people change. Another formula for song writing surfaced which I began to fear. There are people who began to use really ugly words, including some reggeaton songs from Puerto Rico. I said to myself, 'We better not follow that trend, we shouldnt measure ourselves by the same standards. But we continue doing social chronicles, we havent totally abandoned it."

In the 1990s, several popular bands were accused of using vulgar lyrics. Nobody mentioned Los Van Van. How does Formell manage to express Cuban traditions in his songs without resorting to vulgarity?

"For me, vulgarity is to call things by their name, exactly as they are, without using the refinement and the beauty of the double entendre that we Cubans use when talking. In popular music, there are techniques that give flavour and enjoyment to the song, you have to use specific phrase, which does not have to be vulgar.

You can look at examples of artists who came before us, such as Chapotín, Matamoros, and others. 'Cuidadito, Compay Gallo, by Ñico Saquito, is a very ingenious, cunning and beautiful story. But its not vulgar.

I learned from those authors. They talk about a certain issue in such a way that the public can come to whatever conclusion they want. Look at 'La mujer de Antonio camina así.... For instance, how would Antonios wife walk for a photographer? We all have an Antonios wife because everyone has a model of the perfect female that they like.

In the 1980s, there was a song by Los Van Van that went, 'Si yo subo la loma, voy detrás de ese mulo... (If I go up that hill, Im going behind this mule). There was a story before the chorus that explained that in order to go up a hill, people had to go behind the mule driver. If you want to interpret it differently, suit yourself. Thats the basis of the double entendre, and its not vulgar. Thats why Los Van Van have never been accused of using vulgarity.

How is it possible to remain on top in a country full of dance fanatics like ours?

For us the dancer is the most important. The dancer decides the game. If the public doesnt dance, we have to look at what went wrong, because what were doing isnt working.

This is music for the masses, not at all for an elite audience. Its to be enjoyed by everybody. Ive seen bands playing concerts where the audience is motionless and the singer is saying, 'Hands in the air, lets have some fun, and nothing happens. Its horrible.

Thats why, when people say 'No to reggeaton, I say, 'If people dance to it, and sing it, there must be a reason. The masses are never wrong. There might be excessive radio play or other things in play, but if its popular, its because it has a value. Later on, life will say whether it transcends or not.

Necessary Changes

Is Los Van Van a school for the different generations of Cuban musicians?

"I think so, because José Luis Cortés and César (Pupi) Pedroso passed through here. There are also examples from our last stage. I decided to make some changes, not because Im sick but because Im hurt by time -Im diabetic and it takes me a lot of effort to do some things" and I anticipate the day when Im no longer alive. I had to make so many changes, and I was the first thing I changed.

I brought in a new bass player because I needed a new guy to play the instrument in a really 'macho way; my hands were becoming weak. After that, a number of young musicians joined the band, including piano player Boris Luna, my son Samuel; and Cucurucho on piano, among others. They write and arrange, always under my discernment and point of view.

Is Juan Formell no longer directing the orchestra?

Im still directing it. A popular music orchestra is not directed with a baton in hand, like a classical orchestra. Pop music orchestras are usually directed by someone whos part of the group

For me the director is the person who composes, makes the arrangements and establishes the bands sonority from the very first song. Why? Because the first time I scored a hit, La caldera, many people said to me: 'Great, we did it. But four months later people started saying to me 'Hey, dont you have another song like that one? And I thought, 'Not like that one, no; but a new one would work just like the other one that was popular. So people would then come back saying, 'We did it again.

Can you imagine this going on for 38 years, even when the lead singer, at the height of popularity, comes and asks you to leave, or you have to take him out of the orchestra? And you have to look for another singer, someone who may not be able to sing the same songs. This forces you to compose another four songs that are instant hits.

Now, young people in the group who compose support the Van Van sound. Of course, with fresher and more revolutionary ideas, but they follow our base sound. Thats how the orchestra keeps its popularity. It is a trademark that we maintain.

My son Samuel learned this, which means there is a relief pitcher with many years of experience and under my council. But, Im still working, approving things, writing music and composing. When it comes to recording or organizing a concert, I decide whats right or wrong. I have the last word.

Was Van Vans sound affected with the departure of Pedrito Calvo and Cesar (Pupi) Pedroso?

I dont think so. Although they were important musicians, the orchestra moved on. They represented a stage in the history of Van Van. In the case of Pupi, who is a writer and a composer, I think his departure hurt me more than that of Pedritos. Pedrito, although he was an attractive image, could be replaced more easily. A composer, however, is more difficult to replace.

Whats valuable is the song; and Pupi is a hit-maker. His hits with Van Van, such as Tranquilo, Mota andSeis semanas are still remembered today. I was saddened by his departure. Nevertheless, the orchestra carries on and nothing is going to happen.

A woman in Van Van?

Did you include a female singer to follow a trend or in search of a new sound?

Neither of the two. I started to review the practical results of the orchestra. We do two international tours a year: one in the winter and another in the summer, with more than 20 dates each. We have to travel more than 10 or 12 hours a day by bus, and sometimes held over in an airport up to six hours because the flight is delayed.

Playing a concert every day for more than two-and-a-half hours is really tough, especially for the singer who has to sing both the solos and the choruses. The chorus wears you down more than the solo because they can last up to ten minutes. However, women have a different range; what is more comfortable for a woman can be too high-pitched for a man.

The choruses of Van Van are distributed among the different voices: the highest-pitched voice is Mayitos "the most important singer. He was getting really hurt with the choruses, but Yeni is very comfortable with them. That was the first reason.

The second was Team Cuba. When Jose Luis Cortes discovered Yeni and put her in his line-up, I said to myself, 'That young girl can really sing. I knew what she could sing. When she first joined the orchestra, her presence was questioned by many people, and I would say, 'Take it easy, let people have a good listen to her first.

There have not been many female son singers in the history of Cuban music. Generally, they perform boleros and ballads, with some exceptions, such as Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke and others.

But there have not been as many female soneras with the same inspiration and ability as male soneros, because of the words used. It is easy for men to say, 'Mulatona, youre so sexy. For a woman, its more difficult to say that, she has to find another way to improvise. And I think Yeni does it well.

The other thing was replacing Pedrito Calvo, who, during his last period with the orchestra, more than a voice, was an icon and replacing that was not going to be easy. If I would have put in Lele alone, he would have been immediately compared to Pedrito and people would have completely thrashed him. Yeni was the one who took the beating instead.

I did it on purpose. I knew they would just focus on the woman and leave him alone. That was the strategy I used and it worked. Little by little, Yeni convinced the people and nobody ever criticized Lele. Although he does not have the same vocal abilities as Pedrito, he has grace and charisma.

( Part 2

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