SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. For those of us who have followed the decades-long trajectory of this musical institution, we all know this appearance will be different given the absence of founder-director Juan Formell, whose death last May stunned the island nation as well as music lovers around the globe. And while we lament the passing of a legend, we celebrate the transformation of this powerhouse ensemble as they continue to inspire and reinvent themselves under the stewardship of drummer/percussionist (and Juan's son), Samuel Formell.
The group's signature sound is an amalgam of traditional Cuban rhythms mixed with a tinge of American-infused pop and rock, but that feeble description in no way defines the relentless, hip-churning, sonic experience delivered by this band. Trombones and violins? Who DOES that? In the first incarnation of the ensemble, Formell dared to introduce that most American (aka "Imperialist") of sounds, the electric guitar. And to top it off, the drum set - typically not included in the Cuban dance music triumvirate of congas, timbales and bongos - was stripped of its cymbals at first so as to not incur the displeasure of government officials; any resemblance to jazz or rock could result in criminal prosecution, and Formell was well aware of the risks involved in assimilating anything remotely American. He called his new sound "songo" - a mix of Cuban son and "go-go" music, and what made it tick was precisely how much it flirted with rock or pop while remaining truly Cuban at heart. Over the years he added synthesizers, drum pads and other digital accessories, but the foundation of Los Van Van has always been the charanga orchestra, an acoustic instrumentation consisting of flute, strings and rhythm section with Cuban percussion.
|Juan Formell receiving a Latin Grammy Award in 2013.|
Read more on Los Van Van and the legacy of Juan Formell in Billboard Magazine.