By many estimates, Juan Formell is the second-most famous man in Cuba, the first being what's-his-name with the beard. Formell is the leader of Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular dance band for the past 31 years.
In Cuba, he has a big house and a maid. Everywhere else he goes, he is treated as royalty--except for Miami, where he is viewed by many as a court bard for Fidel Castro. His band is nominated for its first Grammy this year, in the salsa category, for "Llego Van Van . . . Van Van Is Here," on Caliente Records.
By many other estimates, Formell's firstborn son, Juan Carlos Formell, 36, is one of the least famous people in Cuba, from which he defected in 1993. But in his new home of New York, the singer-songwriter is in the vanguard of a new generation of young Cuban artists in exile. Like his father, he's also nominated this year for a Grammy, in the traditional tropical category, for his debut album "Songs From a Little Blue House," on Wicklow Records.
The son says he's happy for his father. The father could not be reached in Cuba or Mexico, where he's traveling, but is very likely happy for his son. After all, he called his son in New York three different times, in tears, to say he loved "Songs From a Little Blue House." They still keep in touch by phone, but more and more find themselves divided by a political wedge imposed, the son says, mostly by outside forces in the U.S. and Cuba.
The younger Formell will not be attending Wednesday's Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles, because he was invited to play with Cuban musical patriarch (and Buena Vista Social Club alum) Eliades Ochoa in New York that night. The elder Formell will not be attending the Grammy Awards due to scheduling conflicts.
Juan Formell did not raise Juan Carlos, the oldest of three kids he had with his first wife, the famous cabaret singer Natalia Alfonso. Rather, he sent Juan Carlos to live with his own mother and father when the boy was just 3 weeks old.
The baby's grandfather, Francisco Formell, was a well-known symphonic conductor in pre-revolution Cuba, and was all but ostracized after Castro took power because, Juan Carlos says, "he represented the past."
While Los Van Van grew famous--and while its leader remarried three times and had four more kids--little Juan Carlos lived on the outskirts of Havana, near the city's final bus stop, and was teased by other kids because he had holes in his shoes.
After his grandfather died, his grandmother married a much younger man who rescued injured animals and brought them home, and who bought his new grandson his first guitar. It was in this tiny cinder-block house full of wonderful creatures (a large tortoise slept under his bed) that Juan Carlos nurtured his imagination and love of music.
Though he says he is not by nature a political person, Juan Carlosfound himself cast out of Cuban musical circles because he was a folk songwriter who didn't conform to the party line of Cuba's nueva trova movement, which arose in the '60s to sing the praises of the revolution over a musical tapestry lifted directly from U.S. acts such as Bob Dylan.
"I didn't want to sing about the revolution," Juan Carlos says, "and I didn't want to play in a style that was, in my opinion, a poor imitation of something Americans had done better a long time ago."
What Juan Carlos did want to do was sing original songs, in a style that he describes as a continuation of the traditional Cuban son and changui immortalized by singers such as Compay Segundo. But in Cuban music at the time, the older styles were seen as passe and there was very little room for individuality, says his wife and the associate producer of his album, Dita Sullivan.
Faced with being an outcast songwriter, Juan Carlos took up the bass--his father's instrument--but he pursued jazz because, he says, "at least in jazz there was freedom of expression," albeit strictly tonal. He played with some of the best artists in Cuba, including pianist Emiliano Salvador, who later died of hunger.
Ironically, Juan Carlos was never allowed to play with bands that left Cuba to tour other parts of the world, because the government's security forces had a file on him, he says. But the file had nothing to do with his songwriting, which was highly personal. Instead, he claims, it was related to his attending yoga classes. Because people may only gather in authorized settings in Cuba, the yoga class, which had about five members, was seen as subversive because of its individualistic teachings, Juan Carlos says.
"I was never persecuted for my lyrics," he says, "but because I was into the Baha'i faith and yoga and meditation. . . . Not even my father, who is probably the most influential musician in all of Cuba, could help me."
In 1993, however, Juan Carlos was able to travel to Mexico, with a group called Rumbavana, whose bass player died unexpectedly before a tour. The group performed in Chiapas, which seemed like paradise to him. He quickly decided he would never go back to Cuba.
From Chiapas, Juan Carlos worked his way north through Mexico, playing and singing in restaurants for money. When he got to the border, he stripped naked and swam across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with his clothes on his head. He quickly boarded a bus and was arrested in Laredo, Texas. When he said he was Cuban, he was given a choice: Go back to Mexico, or go to jail in the U.S. He picked jail. A relative in New York paid his bond, and he took a bus there to start his new life.
Among the first things he did in New York in the mid-'90s was listen to music, all kinds of music, crying when he heard Puerto Rican salsa singer Hector Lavoe for the first time. "I cried because the music was so beautiful," Juan Carlos says, "but also because I felt so angry that I'd never had access to his music." Other artists who blew his mind were folk-tinged singers, including James Taylor, Tim Hardin and Doc Watson.
"What's amazing to me is that all these people in the United States complain about their lack of access to Cuban music, without thinking about the fact that people in Cuba have no access to any music from anywhere," Sullivan says. Like many U.S. intellectuals, she once harbored ideas of Cuba as an egalitarian paradise, but now believes it is a totalitarian "hellhole."
Juan Carlos got a record deal last year, after Cuban musician and bandleader Juan de Marco Gonzalez heard him play at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village. Gonzalez recommended him to Nonesuch Records, which had put out albums by Gonzalez's Afro-Cuban All-Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club, saying he viewed Juan Carlos as the continuation of what those older artists had done. Nonesuch's interest led to a buzz in the industry that eventually led Juan Carlos to sign with his current label, Wicklow, which specializes in world music.
Though he'd hoped he had left politics and censorship in Cuba, Juan Carlos says he was surprised to find both were waiting for him in the U.S., where he says left-leaning public radio programmers--the usual outlet for traditional Cuban music--have had a hard time understanding him.
Public radio station manager Maggie Pelleya, of Miami's WDNA-FM, says her station plays both the father and son, but adds that she wouldn't be surprised if other public radio outlets were blacklisting Juan Carlos for political reasons. There's still a sense among many in public radio that Cuba's situation can't be as bad as people say, she says.
"You know, the music is cool, the island is beautiful, the people are nice, so the sense is Castro can't be that bad a dictator," she says. "But those same people wouldn't last a week in Cuba, having their every move watched. For some reason it's OK for us to give credit to Chinese dissidents, but not Cuban ones yet."
Juan Carlos says, "They assume that if you're Cuban you are either a Communist from Cuba, which is 'good,' or an angry confrontational exile from Miami, which is 'bad' to them. What they don't understand is there's a whole new generation of Cubans who grew up under the revolution, who object to the lies and oppression in Cuba, but who want to change things through love and patience. I am part of that generation. That's why I call my music post-Castro, because I sing for the heart and soul of a Cuba that has lost her voice, and I tell the truth."