Juan Carlos Formell
As the spiritual home of Latin America's progressive nueva canción movement (a.k.a. nueva trova) and luminaries Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, it was perhaps inevitable that Cuba would engender a Juan Carlos Formell, the trovador in exile. His grandfather, Francisco, was conductor of the Havana Philharmonic, and arranger for Ernesto Lecuona, whose Lecuona's Cuban Boys was one of Cuba's first musical exports. Formell's father, Juan, founded Los Van Van, the jazz-influenced son ensemble and trend-setting dance presence at home and abroad. Juan Carlos Formell has lived the contradictions of the Cuban revolution, and like many fellow musicians (e.g., Ignacio Berroa, Celia Cruz, Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Albita), he left the island, declaiming artistic freedom.
It is difficult to judge another's political motivations, or to unpack the family history that conditions one's life choices. But Formell's muted, gently charming musical approach - so unlike his father's straight-ahead style - would seem to place him squarely within the nueva trova tradition, and align him with such noted contemporary Cuban composers as Leo Brouwer and José María Vitier. The nature of Formell's artistic transgression in Cuba is unclear, but given the broad musical latitude that younger Cuban artists seem to enjoy (e.g., La Calle, NG la Banda, Osdalgia, Proyecto F, Sin Palabras, Síntesis, Vocal Sampling), it is unfortunate that Formell could find no musical recess in the island of his birth.
Into exile, he carried a spiritual connection with Cuban Santería, and the inspiration of his deceased grandmother. Memories of her childhood home (the "little blue house" of rural Oriente) and her parting words to him suffuse his musical vision. Formell's voice - wistful and sublime - first reached North American audiences via his guest vocals on the whimsical Cigar Music: Tobacco Songs from Old Havana (Traditional Crossroads). His first solo outing, Songs from a Little Blue House reveals the longing and lyricism of a singer, songwriter, guitarist and bassist possessed of an intensely personal and uncompromising voice. Formell's group is a tight, laid-back ensemble of Cuban percussion, drums, and two backing vocalists, with guest spots by jazz luminaries including bassist Harvie Swartz and guitarist Mark Whitfield. Some listeners will be put off by Formell's musical criticism of Fidel (e.g., "Cuba Será Libre") and his celebrity status in Miami's Little Havana exile community, but he is taking overseas Cuban canción in genuinely new directions, reason enough to listen in. - Michael Stone