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The musician acknowledges that adjusting to life in a market society has been difficult, and in his early days in New York he even played in the subways to pick up some cash. His wife Dita Sullivan, a photographer and journalist who has spent time in Cuba, encouraged him to work on his original songs rather than take gigs with salsa bands or play traditional Cuban music for the money, as is often the case with newly arrived Cubans.
Just as Formell has refused to bank on nostalgia, he is also unwilling to make his music apolitical for fear of losing audiences among the New York liberal milieu that would presumably be attracted to his cosmopolitan musical style. He is vehemently anti-Castro and is not adverse to making his political opinions clear in his songs. "I can't separate my music from my political position," says Formell. "Everything in Cuba is political. In another era this wasn't so, and Cuban music reflected on everyday life in Cuba. Now everything's about what the state wants to promote. This record is a subtle way of saying these things because I wanted to say it in a beautiful and positive way. There are lovely things in Cuba and they're going to remain there after Fidel is gone. Rather than a call to aggression, my music is a call to meditation."
Formell sings with his heart in his mouth, and his voice breaks more than once on Little Blue House. On the album's final track, "Mango Mangüey/A Cuba Nos Vamos," he becomes so overwrought with emotion, he actually begins to cry. The track is an interpretation of "Mango Mangüey," by the funky Sixties singer Francisco Fellove. He remembers hearing the song played at his father's house, where Havana's top musicians gathered for Sunday-afternoon jam sessions. As a boy he would make up his own lyrics to the songs he heard, and during his album's recording sessions he did the same thing, shutting his eyes and improvising lyrics while the tape rolled.
"Fidel we're finished with you because the people of Cuba have their own song," "A Cuba Nos Vamos" goes in part. "Don't give up, the day is coming." Formell says he would like the song to become an anthem in both Havana and Miami, describing it as full of optimism for the future, a sentiment that permeates his music.
"Buena Vista Social Club's music represents the glory of the Americanized Cuba of the Forties and Fifties, and Los Van Van's music represents the last 30 years in Cuba," he explains. "My music is postmodern, post-Castro. It's the sound of what's to come."
Juan-Carlos Formell and his band perform 10:00 p.m. Thursday, August 12, at Starfish, 1427 West Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $10. Call 3056731717.