Eterno Formell is a tribute to the late Juan Formell. A former member of Orquesta Revé he is better known and revered as the founder of Los Van Van and its leader for 45 years. It’s an all-star collaboration led by Formell’s replacement as bass in the band, Arnaldo Jiménez Villafranca.
In the best of times, let alone these ones of monetized culture, I approach works such as this with caution. Los Van Van is the soundtrack of people’s lives and our memories. The passing of Juan Formell is a loss we all felt and to make such an album reminds of the fine line between a hero and an idiot. Is it a cash-in or does it come from the heart?
The only original track, El Vanvanero Mayor was the first I heard from Eterno Formell, long before the rest, and I have to say, it hit the spot. It still does. The remaining tracks are covers of Los Van Van tracks spanning from 1969- Fracasé- to 2005- Después De Todo. All were penned by the maestro himself.
Alex de Lara, as Alexander Lara seems now to call himself, opens with the 1990 hit, Aquí El Que Baila Gana. If Lara’s interpretation doesn’t quite convince me, (he was outstanding with Azucar Negra) the arrangements have my interest. Reassuringly, it neither attempts to carbon copy nor cut the balls off the original. I prefer the latter but this is a very credible update.
Though an entertaining subject, La Titimanía (1988) never really grabbed me as a song. This version begins well but the montuno section turns too much towards mainstream Salsa for my taste. Not bad though, and our postie was clearly taken by it when she was delivering something the other day. Interestingly, check this original Los Van Van video for dancers. Quite normal in my experience, the only black person as far as I can see, is Pedrito. Bear that in mind next time you watch Cuban TV and see who’s presenting the show etc.
It was make or break for me by the time I got to the iconic Por Encima Del Nivel, arguably Los Van Van’s greatest pre-Timba moment. This fresh treatment opens with cuíca sounds and guitar, then a re-timed coro over a heavy bassline. The groove is all in the spirit of Juan Formell though the form is new. Very tasty. I thought Pedrito owned this song, but I have to admit, Revé’s Dogberto impresses. Of all the Los Van Van covers released by various bands since Juanito died, this is the best, to my taste.
Where Eterno Formell gets really interesting, though, is when it reaches back to several songs from the 1970’s. Having absorbed elements of Western pop music Formell seems to have got a bit stuck in 1960’s flower power music and its trappings- hence the band’s name (The Go-Go’s)- which he carried over well into the 1970’s. A Ver Que Sale (1973) and Chirrín Chirrán (1974) are, to my ears, improvements of sweet but slightly dated classics. Again, fresh arrangements have given new life to old bones.
If for me the original Que Palo Es Ese needs no update, this Timba-Rap treatment does it no harm. Led by Tony Calá and Canada based Cuban rapper Telmary, it rocks. That Formell was writing material in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s that lends itself so well to modern interpretations demonstrates what a visionary he was.
Of the remaining tracks, Yuya Martinez is a sweet, modern sounding Cha Cha Cha led by ex-Los Van Van singer Angel Bonne. Y Tal Vez has a subtle Bossa Nova influenced arrangement which suits it, but less so, vocalist Lilibeth Daly. She ends up squeezing a bit too much out of this otherwise very gentle song. Jeny Valdés does even more so on Después De Todo, as in the original. I fear the influence of modern R&B, in which vocal pyrotechnics and emoting suffocate a sympathetic response in this listener, has effaced the rule that less is more. Nowhere does that rule apply more, than to vocals.
All in all though, there are five special tracks for me here, and several more I wouldn’t skip over. An interesting cross section of material written by one of the most important figures in Cuban, therefore the world’s music, in the last 50 years. For me, Villafranca and his band got it right where it counts, my fears proved unfounded and Eterno Formell is one of the best releases of the decade to date.