In an interview with the wife of Juan Carlos Formell, Dita Sullivan, (who's admiration and defense of her husband is untiring and beyond measure) I mentioned that the music on first hearing to me sounded Brazilian. She launched upon what amounted to a mini-course in Cuban history and much of this review relies on her comments. The reason the Brazilian flavor is there, according to Dita, is because Bossa Nova was influenced by an earlier form of Cuban music called "Feeling" (also know as ""Filin") which itself evolved from Trova, whose main exponents were Maria Teresa Vera and Sindo Garay.
"Feeling" was a music played by singer/songwriters like Jose Antonio Mendez on guitars. As a child, Juan Carlos heard this music played by his elders. "Feeling" is similar to Bolero but the difference lies in "Feeling" having more of a Jazz phrasing, interpretation and harmony. What Juan Carlos Formell attempts to do in his music is to take the Trova and Feeling style and add Son and Clave. The mixture of all of these sep Every artist wants to be accepted on his or her own merits and terms, but in this Juan Carlos Formell has been burdened and blessed by both his Cuban heritage and his birth. His father is Juan Formell of Los Van Van, considered by many to be the standard bearer for Fidel Castro's Regime or Revolution; depending on which side you stand on the Cuban battle lines. And it is a bitter battle, not of bullets but of hearts and minds, one in which Juan Carlos has been caught in the crossfires. For he is a Cuban exile, a stranger in a strange land who says he left Cuba to be Cuban, or his personal vision of his Cuban identity. But Juan Carlos was not raised by his father but by his paternal grandmother, the widow of Francisco Formell, a conductor for the Havana Philharmonic as well as the arranger for The Cuban Boys under Ernesto Lucuona. He was marginalized in the new Cuba which was focused on the future and wanted to leave behind the past. It was with his grandmother's second husband , that Juan Carlos was exposed His first recording, was an ode to the rural Cuba of his grandmother's memory. The psychological distance that being an exile gave him engendered a unique perspective as he continued to reflect on the full spectrum of Cuban Music. That distance and reflection mixed with his new life and influences became "Las Calles Del Paraiso" - A Walk in Paradise - the paradise of his dreams, memories, hopes and fears.
"Las Calles Del Paraiso" is dedicated to Pello el Afrokan, a great musician who Formell considers the real Cuban revolutionary. He was a Black percussionist, bandleader, composer and choreographer a great leader and personality and to Formell represents the soul of the Cuban people. He feels that with Pello's death in 2000, what he symbolized in Cuba died, the authentic African spirit of the people. Pello took folkloric elements and created an original sound much as Formell aspires to do. The title cut is a traditional Comparsa, Carnival music built on a refrain that Pello made famous. So in a sense the journey through Formell's paradise opens with Pello's funeral march and continues as you walk through the city with Pello el Afrokan, as if you had one last day and night with him.
It is written as a single piece, meant to be heard and realized as a whole although each cut is complete and engaging. Pello's influence is also heard in "Camino Como Comico" - Walk like a Clown, based on a refrain made famous by him. It is also heard in the orchestration with prominent use of trombone. Pello was the one to put the trombone out front in Cuban Music. Rick Faulkner performs on Trombone with Brian Lynch on Trumpet who is a virtuoso arranger and performer, and also a friend and associate of Formell. They are joined on several cuts by Yosvany Terry on Tenor and Pete Rodriguez on second trumpet. The horn arrangements by Formell and Lynch are tight and tasteful.
There is a totally unique collaboration with American Folkloric musicians, which is in accord with Formell's tendency to incorporate roots and rural elements. Richard Zachary is a well-known Cajun Accordionist who is heard on "Caracolera". He was recorded in a session in Louisiana, and while there a Pedal Steel player was also sought. Tommy Moran was recommended, called and he obligingly drove in from Mississippi. Tommy Moran is a virtuoso on his instrument, which is most often heard in Hawaiian and Country music. He also plays completely by ear. He had never met any Latinos before, much less Cubans, and he arrived wearing a ten-gallon hat but after one hearing recorded "Noches de Playa" in one perfect take. Formell was so entranced he added him to "Fotographia", in a truly unique Fusion of world music. Although this may seem an unlikely combo it made perfect sense to Formell who hears American Country and Bluegrass music free from any historical associations. He just loves its musical complexity.
Another unlikely association was Biblical. Two of the cuts are credited with a subtext, one from Lamentations, and another from Isaiah. Formell never saw a Bible in Cuba, had never heard of Cain and Abel, of Easter or of any of the Biblical stories that have become part of the American unconscious. He read the Bible for the first time with fascination and saw, like American Slaves, a correlation between the Jews wandering in the desert looking for the Promised Land, and the Cuban people seeking for their own promised land. In "La Extrema Tristeza De La Tarde"- The Extreme Sadness of the Afternoon, the subtext is from Chapters 1 and 2 of The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a tiny book only 5 chapters long, in which Jeremiah speaks of the terrible sufferings of Israel because of her sins in passionate, heartbreaking richness of language. This makes the song a poetic metaphor and explains why the sadness of the afternoon is Extreme. In the final cut " Vista Del Amanecer"-View of Dawn, the mythic walk with Pello de The Cuban percussive tradition is explored and exemplified by NG la Banda alumni Jimmy Branly on drums and Juan "Wicly" Nogueras on congas, with guest contributions by Horacio Hernandez, Dafnis Prieto, all also young exiled Cuban artists. Carlito Puerto is the musical director and Bassist who was mentored and inspired on Bass by Juan-Carlos Formell who is equally proficient on Bass and guitar. It is the sound of Formell's guitar which creates the distinctive, personal flavor of his music, as well as his voice which is unpretentious, sweet and natural.
Juan-Carlos Formell is a poet, not a politician. His is a personal statement from a gentle, sensitive spirit. He seeks to celebrate life and love and to inspire us to reach out to each other in recognition of our inescapable humanity. His Walk Through the Streets of Paradise is a world of soft colors and singing guitars and joyful voices where there are no boundaries or borders, where an outreached hand is met by another, where souls past and future dance and dance and dance.