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NEW BEATS RATTLE THE OLD CUBAN BANDS

By David Cazares, Sun Sentinel

Cuba’s most celebrated living bandleader is slowed by illness and age. His speech is sometimes slurred, his hands no longer nimble.

Juan Formell has traded his signature stand-up bass for maracas on stage. He is now offering the spotlight to his band’s young stars more than ever before.

Formell still knows how to make Los Van Van swing. It does so expertly on Chapeando, a new release that fuses horns, percussion, violins and vocals.

But, at 63, the venerable bandleader is worried that his band and his music are fighting for attention — even on the island that honors him as its musical king.

Cuban salsa and timba, the fiery dance music made popular by Los Van Van and NG La Banda, are under fire from musical upstarts.

Anyone walking down a Havana street these days is more likely to hear hip-hop or reggaetón, the fusion of Jamaican dancehall rap and Puerto Rican slang that is soaring in popularity.

"The current struggle in the market is tough," Formell said recently on the eve of a national tour. "It’s very complicated. There are a lot of young people making music. This is a big competition."

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