HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban band leader Juan Formell, a Grammy-winning singer and bass player for Los Van Van orchestra whose mixture of son and salsa earned the group the nickname “the Cuban music train,” died in Havana on Thursday. He was 71.
The cause was liver disease, his family said.
Thousands of tearful mourners, many singing Formell’s most popular songs, attended a public wake in central Havana on Friday.
Havana-born Formell created Los Van Van in 1969 and won a Grammy in 1999 for the album “Van Van is Here.” He also won a Latin Grammy last year for musical excellence.
Los Van Van mixed son with salsa in a musical style known in Cuba as songo.
Among the group’s hits were “El negro no tiene na’,” “Te traigo” and “Yuya Martinez.”
An urn with Formell’s cremains was put on display at a theater, where musicians, politician and fans paid their respects.
“To me, he was a master, a friend, a brother and even a father,” said the musician Cesar “Puppy” Pedroso, 69, a Los Van Van band mate for 35 years.
“He was a man with a big heart and always open to teaching younger musicians,” said Pavel Molina, 38, a member of Los Van Van for 11 years.
Formell toured throughout Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States, always returning to Cuba despite the economic troubles of the Communist-ruled island.
That loyalty won praise from former Culture Minister Abel Prieto, now an aide to President Raul Castro, and Cuban Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, both of whom attended the wake.
Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro both sent wreaths, the Communist Party newspaper Granma said on its website.
Formell first learned music from his father, a flautist and pianist, later emerging as a composer and guitarist with Cuban musicians such as Felix Guerrero, Rafael Somavilla, Armando Romeu, Antonio Taño y Orestes Urfe, according to the 1992 book, “The Dictionary of Cuban Music.”
In 1959, when Fidel Castro rose to power after the Cuban Revolution, Formell played bass for the newly formed National Revolutionary Police. He later joined the traditional Cuban orchestras of Peruchin and Rubalcaba and played cabaret music with the orchestra Caribe. In 1968, he joined the charanga group Reve, where he was credited with innovating that style of music.
“His works are classics with the repertoire of popular Caribbean music,” the late Helio Orovio, author of “The Dictionary of Cuban Music,” said in the book.
Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Gunna Dickson