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Bassist Juan Carlos Formell dies after a heart attack onstage. He was 59

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Cuban singer-songwriter Juan Carlos Formell of Los Van Van has passed away. The band was among the most influential from post-Revolution Cuba, and Formell was a musical force of nature. Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Juan Carlos Formell was born in Havana into music royalty. His grandfather, Francisco Formell, was a conductor of the Havana Philharmonic. In 1969, his father, Juan Formell, co-founded the iconic Afro-Cuban band Los Van Van.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR ENCIMA DEL NIVEL")

LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: But the younger Formell very much forged his own path. He studied and played with some of the greats of Cuban music but felt stifled by the regime's control of the music industry, so he defected in 1993. While on tour in Mexico, he crossed the border, eventually moving to New York. His debut solo album, "Songs From A Little Blue House," was nominated for a Grammy in 2000. He released four more solo albums after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YANBANDO")

JUAN CARLOS FORMELL: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: It wasn't until 2014, when his father passed away, that Formell agreed to become the bassist for Los Van Van. The band excelled at building on Afro-Cuban music with rock, disco and hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL BUEY CANSAO (FEAT. TELMARY)")

LOS VAN VAN: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: NYU Professor Carlos Chirinos says this is what made Los Van Van so special since their inception, the mix of tradition with new styles.

CARLOS CHIRINOS: Los Van Van took the popular music sound of rock and pop, kind of mixed it with the traditional charanga format that was originally just violins and flute.

GARSD: Their last album was a family affair. His brother, Samuel, plays drums, and sister Vanessa is a vocalist. Formell was performing in the Bronx last Friday when he stepped away from his bass. He was having a fatal heart attack. He was 59 years old.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERTO FONSECA'S "EL SONADOR ESTA CANSADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.