EMI/Latin, 7-24353-98602-52, 2002
artist's public relations website
Juan Formell, leader of Cuba's popular band Los Van Van, is sometimes called the island's most visible celebrity - after Castro. By extension, his son Juan-Carlos, grandson of Francisco Formell (arranger for the Cuban Boys under Ernesto Lucuona ) could be accused of being one of the lesser known - in Cuba. After touring with Rumbavana in Mexico, singer/songwriter/guitarist Juan-Carlos stripped into the raw. He swam across the Rio Grande into Texas with the clothes on his head only to find himself arrested in Laredo. He was offered jail time or a return to Mexico. He settled on the former, was bailed out by a NYC city relative and now lives the life of a Cuban expatriate musician in Harlem.

Absorbing the Nuyorican salsa and Country Rock of his new home, Formell envisioned combining the classical Cuban son changuí of Compay Segundo with the guitar-based nueva trova style and the more Jazz-oriented filin whose vernacular parallels that of Brazilian Bossa Nova. Initially playing NYC's subways, he ended up jamming on Paul Simon's Capeman soundtrack before signing a long-term contract with Wicklow, Paddy Maloney's Chieftain's label where he released his debut album Songs From A Little House in 1999.

His liner note credits, to musicians who've shared the stage with him, indicate some of the unique influences that congregate on his latest album: Cesaria Evoria, the barefooted diva from the Cape Verde islands; Brazilian national treasure Milton Nascimento; Eliades Ochoa, one of Ry Cooder's collaborators on Buena Vista; Caetano Veloso's postmodern sambista discovery Virginia Rodriguez; and Alpha Yaya Diallo.

Before "defecting" to the US, Formell veered into instrumental Jazz on the bass as a non-vocal, politically harmless form of expression and played, among others, with leading Cuban pianist Emiliano Salvador. Since then, he names James Taylor, Tim Hardin and Doc Watson among his folk-song influences.

In the wake of Buena Vista Social Club with its turn from the big-band style heavy on piano, percussion and horns, Formell's medium-tempo music seems distinctly nostalgic. It evokes a Havanna he admits now exists only in his memories and those of his Cuban Big Apple collaborators. Those are bassist Carlito Puerto (Caravana Cubana); percussionists Dafnis Prieto (Columna B), Jimmy Branly (NG La Banda) and Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez (Santana, Rubalcaba); congoero Juan 'Wickly' Nogueras (NG La Banda); and saxman Yosvany Terry.

And while the music itself is thoroughly modern -- a new form of Cuban music that could only have gestated outside the embargoed island nation -- the lyrics deftly close the circle with the past. Take "Los Santos", a melancholy consideration of old Yoruba deities. The chorus intones "what will becomes of my saints... Yemaya ... Obatala ... the aguardiente has run dry and there's no leaf to make cigars; goats are extinct and chickens are mourned... they're used to smoking the best cigars, Cohibas of pure leaf from the Pinar valley. When they want to eat, you've got to bring a goat, hens of all types, and black beans, too. They're used to dancing to music from the tenements. You've got to play it with soul or they'll become enraged. When they want to drink, aguardiente is what you bring so they'll never stop the rumba and the party..."

The Streets of Paradise suggest a day-long walk through the city of Formell's childhood days, from dawn to dusk and through the night to the following sunrise. From the opener, a Carnival of Rio reminiscent samba-influenced instrumental, Juan's honeyed voice -- suspended between poetic eros and bardic story telling -- sings about a vendor of seashells before he becomes "the moon that slips into your bed, lighting your soul with my burning body". Now glancing at some old photographs in bed recalls memories of a love long past. Then sets in "La extrema tristeza de la tarde", the extreme sadness of the afternoon. In "Noches de playa", we're now by the sea. The sky's turned dark to show "Los aretes de la luna", the moon's earrings. Before the view of the new dawn, "Vista del amanacer", he confesses in "Cuando hable de la noche" why, when he spoke of the night, he purposely didn't mention the stars.

Juan-Carlos' music is possessed of the old-timer elegance of a Compay Segundo. Yet it introduces more strategic, composed-thru elements of city sophistication. There's a strong Brazilian undercurrent present, of rhythm and harmonic progressions. Unexpected elements abound, like that steel-pedal guitar, or the drum patterns concluding "Santos" that sound like a mellower version of Voudoun trance drumming. All this integrates seamlessly, no doubt helped by the stellar ensemble of fellow Cubans. They must have savored this opportunity. To recreate, amongst themselves, a sonic atmosphere of their past. Healed by the passage of time, one remembers only the special magic. By tuning out dissonance and suffering, this magic enhances. Simultaneously, and exposed to the new music of the Americas, this group, under Formell's guidance, is forging the new music of Cuba. Of a Cuba beyond censorship and artistic isolation. A Cuba whose musical legacy embraces external influences of cosmopolitan modernity and is indelibly altered by it.

I for one have never heard Cuban music like this. I dare predict neither have you. If the Buena Vista Social Club gave you a taste of the authentic old, you're bound to want to know what it points to in the new, equally authentic: The Streets of Paradise. This is one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memories. It thus gets our award to distinguish it properly from the confounding mass of new releases. Gracias para este regalo del corazon, Juan-Carlos!