Since its inception 45 years ago, the Carnaval San Francisco street festival has hosted some of the greatest names in Latin American music. Santana, Tito Puente, Los Tigres Del Norte, Oscar D’leon, La India, and Malo — to name a few. 

Every year the stages on Harrison street are crammed with fans from in and out of The Mission District, ready to dance and revel in celebration of Carnaval San Francisco to spirited performances.  

This year, the anticipation for the appearance of Formell y Los Van Van from Cuba as headliners on the 22nd & Harrison stage was exhilarating. Despite the bureaucratic maze presenters must navigate to acquire travel visas for Cubans to enter the United States, Carnaval SF scored a real coup when their appearance was confirmed. 

Instantly, the barrage of feeds on social media pumped the event as a rare and historic occasion. In their 53-year history as a band, Los Van Van have stood as a pillar of modern Cuban dance music, transforming the traditional “Son” into the funkified “Songo” beat with a texture blending violins, flute, trombones, electric keys and bass, and singers rooted in rumba and salsa. 

The band has performed numerous times in the U.S. and San Francisco, but a dark cloud followed them as their 2023 U.S. tour unfolded.

Political Opposition & Tragedy 

Scheduled to perform on May 19, at the Miami Beach Bandshell, the concert was shut down by Miami Beach commissioner Alex Fernandez (a staunch opponent of the current Cuban regime) when he asked the Rhythm Foundation, which operates the outdoor venue, to have the show cancelled. 

“For decades ‘Los Van Van,’ have used their musical talent to promote the Cuban tyranny and its violation of basic human rights,” wrote Fernandez on social media. “Sadly, their ticket sales would redirect dollars out of our economy to help sustain the violations of human rights and individual liberties inside of Cuba.”

Despite the cancellation, the group headed to the Lehman Center in the Bronx, New York City, to perform on May 26. But tragedy struck when Cuban bassist and guitarist, Juan Carlos Formell, son of founder Juan Formell, died on that Friday night as a result of a heart attack. “At least we know that his last moments were on stage giving everything for our music, our family, for Los Van Van, and for his fans,” read the statement released by the group about his passing.  

Rumors flew that the Carnaval San Francisco appearance might be cancelled with the group in mourning. But the rumors were quickly dispelled when they affirmed on Facebook: “we will be paying tribute to Juan Carlos in every performance, in every musical note, in every chorus as Juanca (his nickname) would have wished.” 

Members of Los Van Van perform at San Francisco’s Carnaval on May 27, 2023. Photo: Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela

The Concert

On Saturday, May 27, Formell y Los Van Van were scheduled to start on the 22nd  & Harrison Street stage at 4 p.m. The crowd grew quickly as stage preparations began for the show with folks maneuvering for prime spots. However, it was obvious something was wrong and due to technical hang ups, the performance did not get underway until around 5:30 p.m. when Roberto Hernandez, CANA CEO, brought the band on. 

To begin, lead singer, Roberton (also named Roberto Hernandez) announced the sad passing of bassist Juan Carlos Formell and that they were dedicating the concert to him. With that they kicked off their 50-minute-plus set with “Permiso Que Llego Van Van” (Excuse me, Van Van has arrived). 

It sparked a thunderous applause and soon impatience turned to jubilation as Roberton delivered a gutsy performance in his husky baritone voice. The song is his signature piece from their Grammy-winning album, “Llego…Van Van,” and first recorded for their 30th anniversary. A powerhouse frontline of singers — Abdel Rasalps “Lele,” Vanessa Formell, and Mandy Cantero — encouraged the audience to sing along to the chorus: “permiso que llego van van, permiso.”

Los Van Van singer Abdel Rasalps, aka “Lele,” performs at San Francisco’s Carnaval on May 27, 2023. Photo: Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela

The charismatic “Lele” stepped up next with “Vamos A Pasarla Bien” (We’ll Have A Good Time) that grooved with a solid Timba beat powered by Samuel Formell, who is the engine of this musical train on trap drums. Add to that the roaring trombones embroidering the song with ribbons of brass as the sounds of violins, flute, and keys float on top complimenting the piece. Lele dug in with his soulful improvised lyrics, answering the chorus with positive statements of “yes, our sadness has left” and “happiness has arrived.” 

Los Van Van singer Vanessa Formell performs at San Francisco’s Carnaval on May 27, 2023. Photo: Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela

When the charming Vanessa Formell stepped to the feature spot, she shed a tear for her brother and said what a difficult day it was. “Despues De Todo” (After All) served as her vehicle to showcase a vibrant voice seasoned with impeccable phrasing and a delightful range as she sang to the women, expressing a message about the importance of their emotional strength. She teased the lyric with a cute growl as longtime keyboardist Boris Luna pounded a mean montuno, the repetitive piano riffs that anchor the rhythm section.     

Los Van Van singer Mandy Cantero performs at San Francisco’s Carnaval on May 27, 2023. Photo: Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela

Mandy Cantero came next and delivered a highlight performance fueled by the energetic ambition of a seasoned artist working to win over an audience. With a resume that includes stints with top Cuban bands like Charanga Forever and Pupy Pedroso’s Los Que Son Son, Mandy is not just a great singer but also a great dancer fusing hip hop moves with rumba steps that overall exudes star personality.  

The closer — “Esto Te Pone La Cabeza Mala” (This Will Give You A Headache) — brought front man Roberton back to the microphone and capped the show with an intensity that put the pedal-to-the-metal. The dancers in the rear of the crowd dug in with a “rueda de casino,” a salsa dance circle that combines synchronized steps in a random order with a single leader calling out the moves that the dancers in the circle execute.    

Overall, Formell y Los Van Van gave a stirring performance amid adversity that left an impressionable memory of a short-but-sweet visit to the Carnaval San Francisco. This was not Los Van Van of old, but a group that is reinventing itself and working to shake off the moniker of just a tribute band playing old hits. Their new album, “Modo Van Van,” is due out this Summer and anticipated to be a burning dance record. They sang, they swung, and like true musical ambassadors represented the best that Cuba musically has to offer. 

Los Van Van lead singer Roberton (Roberto Hernandez) performs at San Francisco’s Carnaval on May 27, 2023. Photo: Jesse ‘Chuy’ Varela