Juan Carlos Formell, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who settled in New York after defecting from Cuba and eventually took over as bass player from his famous father, Juan Formell, in Los Van Van, one of the most influential bands in post-revolution Cuba, has died. Saturday during a show in New York City. He was 59 years old.
His death, from a heart attack he suffered on stage at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx, was confirmed by his romantic and musical partner, Danae Blanco. Mr. Formell, she said, suffered from hypertension and arteriosclerosis.
Since fleeing Cuba for New York City in 1993, Formell had charted his own musical course, releasing five solo albums and earning a Grammy nominations in 2000 for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Performance for her debut album, “Songs from a Little Blue House”.
When his father died in 2014, Mr. Formell agreed to carry on his legacy as the bassist for Los Van Van, the Afro-Cuban dance band his father co-founded. The band’s current lineup also includes his brother Samuel on drums and his sister Vanessa on vocals.
The band were only a few numbers away from an energetic set at the Lehman Center when Mr. Formell stepped away from his double bass, doubled over as if to catch his breath, then lumbered towards the back of the stage. As the band continued to play, Abdel Rasalps Sotolongo, Van Van’s lead singer known as Lele, and Javier León Peña, a sound engineer, were helping him offstage when he collapsed near the curtain.
The band took a break for more than half an hour, then made a brief announcement that Mr. Formell had a health problem, and returned to finish the set, playing for nearly an hour, a friend, musician Ned Sublette, who was in attendance, said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Formell was a fourth-generation member of one of Cuba’s most famous musical families. His great-grandfather, Juan Francisco, was a famous bandleader. His grandfather, Francisco Formell, was a conductor of the Havana Philharmonic and arranger for the Lecuona Cuban Boys, a popular big band that started in the 1930s.
his father, Juan Formell, along with other Cuban music giants, César Pedroso, known as Pupy, and José Luis Quintana, known as Changuito, founded Los Van Van in 1969, fusing traditional Afro-Cuban genres such as son cubano with elements of rock, soul and disk.
With the blessing of the Cuban government, the band toured the world for decades, developing a global following. Won a Grammy award in 2000 for the best salsa performance for their album “I’m coming… Van Van/Van Van is here.)
Despite his last name, Mr. Formell’s path to musical success was not easy.
Juan Carlos Formell was born in Havana on February 18, 1964, the eldest of three children of Juan Formell and cabaret singer Natalia Alfonso.
When he was three weeks old, his parents sent him to live in the suburbs of Havana with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather, the chauffeur, had been ostracized by the Castro government because he was part of the old guard. Mr. Formell told the Los Angeles Times in 2000 that he was teased by other children because he had holes in his shoes.
Even so, he started his course in music, studying at the Alejandro García Caturla and Amadeo Roldán conservatories in Havana, and later at the National School of Art of Cuba.
As a teenager he was already composing and studying bass with Andres Escalona of the Havana Symphony Orchestra. He went on to play bass with jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador.
He was also a talented guitarist and hoped to carve out a career as a songwriter, influenced by Afrocubanismo, the Cuban art movement focusing on black identity, as well as the Negrist movement in poetry, especially the work of Nicolás Guillén. Even so, he felt unable to express himself freely under the restrictions of Cuba’s government-controlled music industry, his ex-wife, Dita Sullivan, said in an email.
“While I was still in my 20s, at a time when most musicians are hopeful,” he said in a 2001 radio interview, “I was resigned to a future of marginalization.”
In 1993, while touring with the Conjunto Rumbavana dance band in Mexico, he defected, crossing the Rio Grande near Laredo, Texas, and eventually settling in New York City. The transition was not easy.
“When you leave Cuba, you don’t exist,” Mr. Formell said in a 2005 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “If you come here, you are invisible. You come here and nobody cares. If you want to defect, you better have a support system.
Even so, he built a career performing solo and with various ensembles in New York jazz clubs. before releasing his Grammy-nominated debut. Mr. Formell followed with “Las Calles del Paraíso” (“The Streets of Paradise”) in 2002 and “Cemeteries of Desire”, a 2005 reflection on the Latin musical aromas of New Orleans, along with “Son Radical” (2006) and “Johnny’s Dream Club” (2008), which a Village Voice review said cast “an unforgettable spell.”
His music, rooted in the filin, a jazz-influenced romantic genre of Cuban popular music, as well as son cubano, a traditional style that mixes Spanish and African influences, celebrated the natural beauty of his land and its complicated history.
“Although my songs are not specifically about politics,” he said in a 1996 interview, “they reflect the reality of Cuba from my point of view and not from the point of view of the system.”
Besides Samuel and Vanessa, her survivors include her other sisters, Elisa Formell Alfonso and Paloma Formell Delgado, and another brother, Lorenzo Formell González. He and Ms. Sullivan separated in 2012 and divorced in 2021.
in a facebook post In announcing his death, Los Van Van said he would continue his US tour, “paying tribute to Juan Carlos in every performance, every musical note, every choice of Vanvanero as Juanca would have wanted.”