In 1995 Juan-Carlos Formell came to Miami for six weeks from New York City to perform Cuban classics with his band at Calle Ocho's Café Nostalgia. Although the gig was successful enough, another Miami experience had a more profound influence on Formell and his music. One afternoon he accompanied conga player Wickly Nogueras on his day job, selling flowers. As Nogueras entered barber shops, cafeterías, and stores, he began to sing, inventing whimsical lyrics that extolled the virtues of his bouquets and flattered potential buyers. Working as a street vendor, the conga player was performing a common rite of passage for recent Cuban immigrants. But his singing evoked a far more venerable tradition: that of the merchants who once crowded the streets of Havana each morning and hawked their wares via improvisational songs called pregones. Nogueras's impromptu tunes naturally hit a sentimental nerve with his Cuban exile customers. And with Formell.
"I realized that what Cuba needed now was pregones," he says on the phone from his Queens, New York apartment. In Cuba such street cries are acknowledged as a legitimate, albeit historical, musical form. Pregones traditionally borrowed rhythms from musical genres such as son and guaracha, and in turn the style influenced popular Cuban music, which through the years has grown rich with metaphorical songs about food. (The ubiquitous Cuban evergreen "El Manisero" -- "The Peanut Vendor" -- is essentially a pregon.)
"With the revolution Cuba lost its commerce, and it also lost a way of life," laments Formell. "These pregones were so wonderful, and in a song you can sell love or joy the same way you sell mangoes or peanuts. I wanted to do my first record inspired by the flora and fauna of Cuba, but do the whole thing like a grand pregon."
Formell, who is 35 years old, describes his wonderful debut recording as "the new music of Cuba." He left the island in 1993, but Songs from a Little Blue House is indeed a watershed for fans of Cuban music; the record has a sense of sophistication yet an uncluttered simplicity that will appeal to the Buena Vista Social Club crowd. Formell, who sings as well as plays dazzling guitar and bass on the album, is clearly heir to the spontaneous vocal stylings and ingenious swing of those Grammy-winning old-timers.
"My intention was to create danceable music that you can also sit and listen to, the way Cuban music was in its golden age," he says. "It's an album that makes reference to varied styles of Cuban music, thus it is postmodern. At different moments you can hear different types of folkloric music, charanga, timba. My music takes you a little by surprise." Formell's point of departure is his nation's folk tradition, but he notes that his references are traditional Cuban country genres -- acoustic son and changui -- rather than the Sixties ballads of the island's revolutionary troubadours, whom he believes merely imitated the American protest songs of the same era. While rooted in traditional Cuban genres, Little Blue House is woven with jazz guitar, rolling drums, and horns, as well as acoustic rock riffs. Produced by John Fishbach, who has worked with Stevie Wonder and Carole King, the album was recorded with both American and Cuban musicians, including jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield, saxophonist Mario Rivera (a veteran of the New York salsa scene), Cuban drummer Horacio "el Negro" Hernandez, and folk singer Pedro Pablo Martinez. Sliding smoothly from euphoria to melancholy, or holding steady in between, the music on Little Blue House evokes the emotional rollercoaster that is Cuba, for those who live inside or outside the island, as well as those who have come to know the country and its people well.
The album's resulting soulful synthesis is totally unlike the forced fusion of today's "hot" Latin pop crossover products, and is devoid of musical and textual clichés. Formell's sweet and sour vocals and the record's acoustic intimacy bring to mind international singer/songwriters ranging from Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young.
In Cuba Formell played bass with acclaimed jazz pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Emiliano Salvador, among others. But he is best known for his last name. He is the son of Juan Formell, the leader of Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular dance band for the past three decades. The younger Formell did not join Los Van Van, and in Cuba led a life removed from his father's celebrity. He was raised primarily by his grandmother, who often told him stories about the little blue house in Oriente province, where she lived as a girl. Formell studied bass -- his father's instrument -- from a young age, and was writing songs by the time he was eleven years old. His musical studies were cut short by a stint in the military, after which he embarked on a precarious musical career in Cuba. At one point he played his guitar and sang at the Habana Libre Hotel.
"There were always a lot of problems," he remembers. "I got complaints [from government officials] that my lyrics weren't clear." His solo career thus discouraged, he took jobs as a bassist with various groups. In 1993 Formell traveled to Mexico with one band and defected there. He crossed the Rio Grande, heading for New York City.
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."
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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.