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Enemies: A Musical

Politics have obscured the artistic questions about a Cuban son

July 07, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA

When it comes to sending out copies of new albums to critics, Dita Sullivan doesn't believe in taking any chances. She has an enemies list of writers who, she assumes, are biased against the work of New York-based singer-songwriter Juan-Carlos Formell, son of the famed founder of Havana's Los Van Van, Juan Formell.

So Sullivan, who is married to the younger Formell, recently issued her marketing marching orders about who should get review copies of her husband's latest CD, "Las Calles del Paraiso," which she co-produced.

And who should not. She blacklisted anybody who had written favorably about Los Van Van, her father-in-law's revered dance band.

"Don't go to them," she instructed the publicist promoting her husband's album, "because these people are not our friends."

I know this because Sullivan told me during a recent phone conversation, or rather, confrontation.

Sullivan's strange strategy may be hard to fathom, unless you understand the politics of Cuban music. Hers is a convoluted, Cold War rationale that puts the world, including music lovers, into two camps: pro-Castro and anti-Castro.

Her premise: Those who support the Cuban revolution do not support music made by Cuban exiles, like her husband. Instead, they are misguided fans of progressive bands that have emerged since the revolution, including Los Van Van, founded 10 years after Castro took power.

Thus, she reasons, if you love Formell Sr. in Havana, you'll hate Formell Jr. in New York.

Sullivan knows I'm a hard-core Vanvanero, a nickname for the band's obsessed fans. In January, I wrote a lengthy article about Formell Sr., tracing the extraordinary history of Los Van Van during the past 33 years.

Sullivan said she was outraged at what she considered dismissive treatment of Juan Formell's father, Francisco, who helped raise his grandson, now her husband. She thought the article should have explained that the patriarch was a talented musician and arranger in his own right.

"He was an important figure in pre-Castro Cuba," Sullivan said, "which is why he had to be disparaged."

Granted, Francisco Formell got short shrift in the piece. But it was due to space, not politics. It's absurd to think a critic would "disparage" Cuban musicians simply because they predate the revolution. That would require dissing the greats like Beny More, Orquesta Aragon, Arsenio Rodriguez and Israel "Cachao" Lopez.

My bias in Cuban music is the same as it is in other genres. I favor fresh, original work over tried-and-true formulas. The fact is that modern Cuban musicians, nurtured under the Socialist education system, are far more creative than their exiled counterparts who got stuck in nostalgia.

That's not politics. That's personal taste.

Even those preferences aren't all black-and-white. I recently raved about the latest album by Albita, the Miami-based exile who appeared last week at the Mayan. I'm also excited about the new group Yerba Buena, based in New York and featuring another excellent, exiled Cuban vocalist, Xiomara Laugart.

And who doesn't love Celia Cruz, perhaps the most famous exiled Cuban artist? At one time, Cruz was unofficially blacklisted by Cuban cultural authorities for her outspoken opposition to Castro's regime. Yet even the island's hardliners have stopped playing politics with music. Recently, Cuba's government-controlled record industry allowed the release of a tribute album to Cruz by Haila Mompie, ex-vocalist of Bamboleo.

So politics aside, how good is the work of Juan Formell's son?

You can call me a communist, but I was not impressed by his 1999 debut, "Songs From a Little Blue House." I listened to it again recently and liked it only slightly better. It still sounds bland and listless, but I've started to appreciate the strength in Juan-Carlos Formell's songwriting.

If only he didn't insist on singing.

Unfortunately, he inherited his father's voice, thin and anemic. But junior doesn't have his dad's good sense to leave the vocals to the experts. Formell Sr., who handles the occasional Van Van tune when it suits his limited range, is known for hiring Cuba's most impressive soneros, or improvisational singers. His son should do the same.

Formell Jr. has claimed publicly that he was blackballed as an artist by the Cuban government, partly because he practiced yoga. But his critics say he's lucky he didn't get arrested for impersonating a superstar on an island brimming with outstanding, undiscovered talent.

In the U.S., people are free to make mediocre records. They're also free to blame their enemies if they fail. But then how does an artist grow if all critiques are dismissed as politically motivated?

Juan-Carlos Formell's new album is stronger than his first, with livelier arrangements and tighter playing. Plus, his songwriting is getting richer, as in the heartwarming "Loco Juan" and the lively "Camina Como Comico," a tribute to pioneering '60s percussionist Pedro Izquierdo, a.k.a. Pello El Afrokan, that is far too short.

The album still has some lame selections, but the good ones make you yearn for a singer who could do them justice. My advice to the young Formell: Forget about politics and trying to prove you can do it all. It's your ego, not your enemies, that is holding back your music.


Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.

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