Friday, May 02, 2014

Farewell to Cuban Music Legend Juan Formell (1942-2014)

Juan Formell (Aug 2, 1942 - May 1, 2014)

Once in a great while there comes along an individual with such enormous talent, vision, imagination and creativity that it is impossible to fathom. Juan Formell is that person. He was, simply put, the Cuban musical equivalent of Mozart, of Duke Ellington, of The Beatles - he singlehandedly transformed the cultural landscape of the island in the second half of the 20th century, and continued to revolutionize popular music in the 21st century, as his beloved band, Los Van Van, celebrated 45 years of creating the most intoxicating dance music on the planet. I say this because I will forever be a "Vanvanera" - the ultimate fan - and his musical legacy is without a doubt one of the most unprecedented in Cuba's history.

I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting Formell for the first time in 1990 after having played his songs in several bands in the US over the years. Los Van Van were playing in the small town of Bejucal, a Havana suburb, and video camera in hand, I climbed up on stage to film a few minutes. In the era before social media, Cuban musicians knew full well that our intentions were honest and honorable; we were there to study and learn from the masters, and these video gems were our lessons. Afterward, Formell invited a few of us to his home for what would be the first of many wonderful encounters filled with music, laughter and more than a few sips of Cuban rum. Seeing Los Van Van live in Cuba after only having experienced them on records was transcendental, to say the least. Every song instantly brought about an immediate response from the audience of frenzy and unbridled joy. People of all ages and races danced and sang together, and what blew my mind was how well they knew every nuance of every single song - the breaks, the multiple choruses (or what Formell referred to as sobre montunos), every detail was a part of the audience's collective memory, and they too were performers, often being called up on stage to exhibit their sensual dance moves. What's more, he was able to chronicle the daily lives of the Cuban people in a way that defied traditional norms and convention while staying true to the dance-loving public. He was a musical chameleon, filled with a musical curiosity that was often in direct violation of the political system. He listened to Elvis, to The Beatles, even to The Monkees, and he did so during a time of great personal and political risk in post-revolutionary Cuba.
"El Tren" (the train)

During the early 90s as cultural exchange programs, research, and music festivals brought me to the island, I found myself in the enviable role as Formell's translator during lectures, clinics or performances, and would always be blown away when the band would ask me to sit in. Nothing I had ever experienced came close to the ecstasy of playing on stage with this powerhouse band while thousands of Cuban fans gyrated their hips in perfect unison, simultaneously singing along to every chorus. As I continued my research into the wealth of Cuban music and history, I found myself spending quality time interviewing and learning from Formell as well as timbales legend José Luis Quintana "Changuito." Not only were all of the members of the band (including pianist César "Pupy" Pedroso) some of the most knowledgeable musicians I had met, they were also completely humble and accessible. They shared their exquisite treasure trove of information with me in exchange for the simple joy of camaraderie and musical companionship. I understood even more why it was that Cubans refer to Los Van Van as "el tren" (the train): they are and continue to be a joyous ride of relentless grooves, and everyone is welcome on board!

When we learned that the band would finally tour the US in 1997, we prepared for their long-overdue Bay Area appearances with great anticipation, and it was clear that the San Francisco Bay Area community was ready to celebrate with them. A few of us invited the band to see the Giants (at Candlestick Park), threw a welcome dinner at Cha-cha-chá restaurant in SF's Haight Ashbury District (Chinese-Cuban owner León was thrilled to have the band in house), and had more than a few parties and jam sessions. After one of the shows my husband and then 2-year-old son and I were hanging out with the band at their hotel, and I had the great fortune of asking Formell a few questions about the Cuban clave and his compositional process. He gave me one of the best responses any of us Cuban music lovers could imagine: he said that the most important part of every single composition he wrote was the GROOVE. The hook came first, he said; if you've got a strong hook, the story will follow. And man, was he right. There is not one person in the crowd at a Van Van show who does NOT know the hook of every single song!
With Samuel (l) and Juan Formell (r), Yoshi's SF Dec 2010

Over the years I would see the band as our tours would coincide - we shared the stage in Seattle at the Bumbershoot Festival when I was touring with Mickey Hart & Planet Drum - but would never have imagined the drama and controversy that would unfold in 1999 when they played in Miami. How quintessential that despite the media circus that ensued, the band would rise above the hoopla and claim their first of several Grammy awards in 2000.

In 2010 they returned to San Francisco to play at Yoshi's, and I was not about to miss it. As my husband and I made our way to the dance floor in front of the stage, the band came on and commenced to blow the roof off the place. After the opening 20-minute medley of hits (!), Formell, not knowing we were in the house, made the most gracious and touching comment about our support for the band and for Cuban music. It will remain etched in my brain as one of the best moments of my personal and professional life, not only because it reinforced how absolutely genuine Juan Formell was, but how much he valued the Bay Area's musical community and our advocacy of his music. The world has lost another icon, but the music he created will last an eternity, and I am humbled and grateful for the wisdom, musicality and insatiable grooves that he has left us. Rest in peace, Maestro Formell.
-- Rebeca

P.S. Here is a lovely biographical article by

Billboard Magazine obit.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

50 is the New 30!!

Less time to blog doesn't mean I don't have anything to share...but as I reach the mid-century mark I'm hoping friends and fans will join me for my 50th Birthday Celebration at Yoshi's San Francisco on Sunday, May 27th at 7pm. If you're staying in town Memorial Day Weekend please come enjoy an evening of music with friends and special guests. Click here for tickets and info. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Time for Bay Area Unity in the Wake of NARAS' Recent Decision

What follows is my statement for this morning's press conference at Yoshi's (later today, May 11th). As I am unable to attend, Peter Williams has graciously offered to read it on my behalf:

"My dear colleagues and friends,

How wonderful that we all feel compelled to come together as a community regardless of these unfortunate circumstances, to “defend” our inclusion by an institution that has clearly lost sight of its purpose. If I could be here with you this morning I would share your disappointment, but I would also echo your voices in a call to action. Let’s use this moment to stay united and remain focused with positivity.

What we as a community do to right this and so many other wrongs will be the ultimate test of our solidarity for one another, and our respect for the creative spirit that is the Bay Area. Together we can – and should – nurture the next generation and help transform them from consumers of art to makers of art.

As artists it is our mission to continue on our creative path without seeking the validation of any institution; the most precious validation for me is seeing the growth of the next generation as we pass them the baton. In our hearts we know what is true and what is right, and it is high time that we stand together to celebrate all music without the acknowledgement of a self-congratulatory, profit-driven industry. What we do right now and in the future will be the reflection of our past, and as artists, educators, presenters and media professionals, we should forge a common vision that demonstrates our strength of character and our resolve. This is not about “Us versus them;” this is about all of us. I only hope that with all of our positive energy we can convince NARAS to revisit their decision and never again lose sight of the artists and community who have made them what they are."

In friendship,
Rebeca Mauleón
May 2011

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Los Van Van US Tour 2010: Everything We Expected and More!

Singers (l to r) Lele, Yenny and Mayito.

Once we received confirmation that Los Van Van were in fact cleared to come to the United States, I made plans with my family and friends to go to Yoshi's on Friday Dec. 10th - and of course ended up going back Sunday night for more! The re-vamped 16-piece (yes, 16!) band barely fit on the uncomfortable and oddly shaped stage, yet their sardine-like formation in no way diminished the power-packed set, to which we danced, swayed and sang-along collectively being the faithful "vanvaneros" we are. Words simply cannot describe the live Los Van Van experience, and even with the absence of iconic figures such as Pedrito Calvo (the one with the hat) and Pupy (César Pedroso, pianist and co-founder who now fronts his own band), the "train" as they are known in Cuba did not disappoint.

Mara Fox and Wayne Wallace sitting in!
Tearing into a 75-minute set of recent tunes as well as their classic "oldies" medley of hits from the 70s and 80s, the powerhouse band of founders and young lions gave the crowd what they wanted: non-stop hip-churning grooves. Anyone who knows this band will tell you that their particular brand of "songo" is founded on one principle: to make people dance. Yet the jam-packed crowd was content to soak up the energy emanating from the stage without the need for stylized salsa moves, as is the norm in the Bay Area; folks here love to show off their dancing chops, but a Van Van experience is more like a rock show in that the crowd functions as a living, breathing and pulsating organism that feeds off the band. The front row of four singers (Mayito, Roberto, Yenny and Lele) take turns in the lead role, and director Juan Formell - now more of a musical director/conductor - seems to relish his revamped role now that he has fresh "reinforcements" in the bass chair with Pavel Molina Ruiz. The sound of this band is relentless, the tempo mostly up-beat and the volume loud; there is certainly subtlety and nuance, but the priority with Los Van Van is to keep everyone moving, period.
Rebeca with Samuel and Maestro Juan Formell

This being the Bay Area, we also have a number of musicians who - in addition to being die-hard LVV fans - have a deep and long-time relationship with the band. A number (including yours truly) were asked to sit in, including trombonist Wayne Wallace (nominated this year for a Grammy in the Latin Jazz category - congrats!!), trombonist Mara Fox and flautist John Calloway. I myself was pulled up onto the stage at the bequest of Mayito Sunday night for a solo on "Tim Pop con Birdland," and had the time of my life! (See video below.) I heard from Kevin Moore of that every late show set was different from the first. To be sure the restrictive nature of Yoshi's 2-show format really doesn't work for Los Van Van's aesthetic. Like I said, their shows are more like rock shows, and a typical set is at least 2 hours! That said, it was still a musical high that the Bay Area won't long forget. Just can't wait to see them again...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Los Van Van come to Yoshi's San Francisco

I won't believe it until I see it - with the cancellation earlier this year of Los Van Van in the midst of a booking snafu, we "vanvaneros y vanvaneras" were slightly pessimistic. But word is the U.S. tour is on, with stops in LA and NYC before a four-day stint at Yoshi's in San Francisco. The format of the band may have changed over the years, and yes - Pedrito Calvo is not scheduled to appear with them after all - but no matter: el tren always delivers. Any of you naysayers out there will be in for a post-modern Cuban shock; nothing like this 15-piece+ band playing live to knock your socks off!

Get your dancing shoes on - ¡que pronto empieza la fiesta!

UPDATE 12/2/10 @ 1pm ~
As of today 3 of Los Van Van's band members - including director Juan Formell - have not received their U.S. visas. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens. Here is a link to the LA Times article.

UPDATE 12/3/10 ~ Looks like the visa snafu has been solved. We shall see...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chico & Rita Premiere in the U.K.

So the U.S. release of Fernando Trueba's animated film Chico & Rita will have to wait, but at least UK audiences are already in the know as they were treated to the release over the weekend. Here is the UK Trailer of the film:

For all you jazz and Cuban music fans, you will love this film.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers @ SF Jazz

Rebeca with Chucho Valdés
There are few musicians in the world today who command such international respect and admiration as Chucho Valdés. His extraordinary career is a testament to all things that are good in the world of music: talent, virtuosity, endless creativity and a willingness to reinvent oneself, just to name a few. Last Monday, October 11th I witnessed a performance by the Maestro in his latest incarnation of ensembles, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, on the first stint of several U.S. tour dates - his first appearance here in over seven years.

The sell-out crowd at San Francisco's Herbst Theater was exuberant and giddy with anticipation, partly because our San Francisco Giants had just clinched their division and the smart-phone-crazy audience spontaneously erupted in applause even before the show began. Once Chucho and his band took the stage, we were in for a remarkable yet totally expected roller coaster ride of musical excellence. I say "expected" because with Chucho, we expect nothing less from a man who so truly has embodied the sound of Cuba for nearly half a century; he IS the absolute representation of what Cuban musicianship is all about. The product of classical training, the indelible influence of his father Bebo Valdés and a total command of American jazz, Chucho tore into a two-hour plus set of unimaginable depth and diversity and had people on the edge of their seats with his extraordinary Irakere-era pieces, newly transformed for smaller ensemble, along with his take on jazz standards combined with the African-infused textures of his homeland. From references to Brubeck, Ellington and Zawinul, Chucho demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the most compelling musicians of any generation as he paid tribute to these and other musical masters. And for those of us die-hard Irakere fans, we were treated to familiar repertoire in a different light, while we got to revel in the largely acoustic format of this smaller incarnation. In fact, the first several numbers featured Chucho and rhythm section only, minus any horns and vocals - a lovely way to start the program.

Chucho with Giants Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda
The band includes some mighty talent in Yaroldy Abreu on congas, who resembles Giovanni Hidalgo in his lightning-fast chops and power, Juan Carlos Rojas on drums, Reynaldo Melián on trumpet (of Gonzalo Rubalcaba fame), saxophonist Carlos Miyares, batá percussionist and vocalist Dreiser Durruthy, and Lázaro Rivero on bass. A last-minute addition to the program was Chucho's sister Mayra Caridad, who sang only one number. There were a few uncomfortable moments, many of them technical as the increasing intensity of the percussion tended to drown out the piano, but overall the extraordinary music and musicianship made up for any minor production issues. A seemingly more daring rhythmic approach in Chucho's writing is evident in this project with his frequent use of odd meter; although we know Cuban music to be inherently danceable, this music is clearly about listening, period. And for all the technical prowess of the man and his music, I sensed something new in him - a more tender, sensitive side than in previous concerts. Perhaps he has tapped into a more spiritual side - there was certainly no shortage of Yoruban liturgical chants and rhythms in the set, yet that repertoire was always a part of the aforementioned Irakere. But his stance at the piano struck many of us - he sat miraculously still for someone playing with so much speed and agility on his instrument, and at times he seemed to sit back and let the band go. Those familiar with his many musical incarnations have to wonder what will come next for Chucho Valdés, and we revel in the possibilities because we know we will be in for a treat, no matter what.

Click here to read my recent review of Chucho's Steps in JazzTimes Magazine.