Los Van Van 
Timba band

For the past four decades Los Van Van have been showing the world that Cuban music is alive and well and very, very danceable. With the crowd response on their most recent US tour (Los Angeles, New York, Miami...) as fresh evidence, that mission has been a resounding success. But after closer inspection – specifically, after sitting down for a rare interview in Havana where it all began – you understand that there's a lot more to Los Van Van than meets the dancefloor.

The true achievement of Los Van is that they take something very complicated – namely, sophisticated lyrics, eclectic instrumentation and multi-layered percussion– and they make it all seem very simple. They have invented a sound (several sounds, in fact) undeniably their own. Long before "fusion" became the catch-all label for Cuban musicians attempting to break the mould, Los Van Van set sail for new musical shores and never looked back. Listen to the band's earliest recordings and you hear violins playing rock chord progressions ("El Penoso"), and traditional changüi rhythms turned inside-out and upside-down.

The band's name is the subject of some debate. The most oft-repeated version holds that Los Van Van translates in English as "The Go Go's," as a nod to pop music currents from beyond Cuba in the 1960s. Juan Formell, who started Los Van Van in 1969 and remains the band's leader, says the name was originally a play on the Cuban government's campaigning to boost the country's sugar cane yield ("¡Los diez millones van!"), but he doesn't attach much importance to it. "It's just a name like any other," he shrugs. The band's music, however, is a different story, and one that has always completely obsessed him.

Born in Havana in 1942, Juan Formell first studied with his music-teacher father, then with legendary Cuban bassists Orestes Urfe and Israel "Cachao" López. He got his first gigs playing his string bass in dance halls looking to revive their fortunes after the Cuban Revolution. "La Martes," a song he wrote while working with Elio Revé's charanga band, became his first dance hit.

Formell formed Los Van Van with another member of Revé's outfit, a piano player called Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso, and the two of them went on to write hit after hit. The Los Van Van lineup in the early days featured two violins and two flutes as you might find in any traditional Cuban charanga band but there were also three trombones and three vocalists, along with Formell on bass and Pupy on piano. Electric piano, organ, electric guitars and synthesizers have come into play over the years, but you could argue that it has always been the percussion that really sets the Los Van Van sound apart.

The band's first recordings featured a drummer called Blas Egües but he was quickly replaced by José Luis "Changuito" Quintana. Changuito's virtuosity on drums and timbales helped Formell develop a funked-up version of son montuno which he called "songo". For many Cubans songo became the sound of the 1970s. "Songo" also served as the title of Los Van Van's breakthrough album in 1988 (released internationally on Mango records). As if the genesis of songo weren't enough, Los Van Van went on to pioneer the dizzyingly complex rhythmic style that became known as timba long before Cuban timba outfits like La Charanga Habanera and NG La Banda became famous for it in the 1990s.

Many fans wondered how Los Van Van would fare after Changuito left the band in 1993. The answer arrived in the form of Formell's son, Samuel, who took over drumming duties from Changuito and went on to contribute outstanding compositions such as "Te Pone La Cabeza Mala" (1997), the title track of one of Los Van Van's best albums.

The speculation about Los Van Van's future began anew with the departure of Pedro Calvo (the crooner made famous by "Se Acabo De Querer") in 2000 – the same year the band won itself a Latin Grammy award for "Llego Van Van". The fears redoubled the following year when Pupy left the to form what looked like an openly competitive band called Los Que Son, Son. But there is seemingly nothing Juan Formell likes better than rising to a challenge and he came back punching, most notably on the 2005 album "Chapeando".

Singing with Los Van Van today are Mayito Rivera, Roberto "Roberton" Hernandez, Lele Rosales, and Yeni Valdes – the band's first female lead vocalist. "And she may be the last," Formell jokes, because "Yeni is unique, her voice has a beautiful range. She is a musician who adds so much to the whole orchestra. She is brilliant on the stage."Juan Formell's daughter Vanessa also contributes vocals from time to time. Samuel Formell is still behind the drums, and he has also taken over his father's role as Los Van Van's musical director. Samuel Formell doesn't allow for doubts about either the band's future or its ability to innovate and stay relevant: "Today we're following in Juan Formell's footsteps in various ways," his son and musical heir explains. "Today there are new musicians, young contemporary musicians, the music is richer, there's a higher level of musicianship – that's all fine. But Juan Formell's ideas live on, and his concept will always live on." And Los Van Van continues to tour far and wide, bringing danceable Cuban music to the planet in ways no other band could ever imagine.