By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Luis Munoz Marin Amphitheater in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has an official capacity of 5000. But more than 6000 fans flooded the house January 30 for the farewell concert of the Cuban group Los Van Van's first-ever U.S. tour. From the initial clap of the clave rhythm, the fifteen-member band united and conquered the crowd of Puerto Ricans, Americans, and Cuban emigres with the intricate, dance-driven Caribbean soul they call songo.
During the opening number, fittingly titled "Ya Empezo la Fiesta (The Party Has Begun)," an excited female fan leapt on-stage and danced with pelvis-slinging lead singer Pedro Calvo. At the start of the second song an ecstatic coed fainted. Later, when 29-year-old vocalist Mario Rivera (known as Mayito) shook his braids with studied cool and rapped a plea to the Afro-Cuban gods dedicated to "Cubans here and Cubans there," a man in the first row clenched his eyes shut as he listened, trying to squeeze back tears.
Cuba's most popular dance band enjoyed similarly explosive receptions at concerts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco in December and January. Yet the succession of groundbreaking dates did not include Miami, home to the largest Cuban population in the United States: Group members say their fear of protests from hard-line exiles deterred them from appearing in concert here.
Eleven members of the band did manage to slip into town midtour in order to visit family and friends -- including ex-Van Van singer Israel Kantor, who would later return the favor by flying to Puerto Rico and sitting in on a couple of numbers during the San Juan concert -- and their presence caused a sensation among a less-outspoken sector of Miami's Cuban population. A few hundred fans descended on La Llave, a small Allapattah cafeteria, after word spread that Los Van Van planned to eat lunch there. Factory workers, store clerks, and out-of-work musicians chugged Budweisers, ate $1.49 steak sandwiches, and danced to a jukebox that blared the hits of Los Van Van late into the night. TV crews arrived to capture the impromptu bash, though, and word got back to the band, which convened instead at a house nearby, where they sat on folding chairs in the driveway greeting old friends and dining on homemade roast pork and rice and beans. In the early hours of the morning, the more hardy among the group treated their small but delighted audience to a jam session.
Juan Formell founded Los Van Van in late 1969, aiming to revive Cuban dance music, which had been largely supplanted by revolutionary folk singers and foreign rock. The name of the band -- essentially "the Go Gos" -- was adopted from a revolutionary political slogan that was part of Castro's disastrous attempt to increase Cuba's sugar harvest in 1970, and, true to the name, the group's music frequently pokes fun at Cuban foibles. Their humorous songs address the grim reality of living in the stifling Havana tenements known as barbacoas (barbecues) or lampoon the futility of laboring within a crippled bureaucracy. "It's social chronicle, it's not political," Formell ventures cautiously. "Well, what's social can be political, but it's not intended as a criticism of the government, it's just about things that are happening around us." He points out that Los Van Van are following in the tradition of Miguel Matamoros, Ignacio Pineiro, and other celebrated Cuban composers whose songs made use of idiom and (sexual) innuendo. "There are things that you can't say clearly, so you disguise them," he says. "That's fundamental in our music."
The group's innovative beat and timely message immediately resonated among its Cuban audience. "We had an incredible response from the beginning," recalls Formell, gray-haired and dapper at the age of 54. "By 1972 there wasn't any other band that the people wanted to see, only Los Van Van. We created music that had a sound with influences from pop, rock, and jazz, from a lot of different sources, but without abandoning our Cuban roots. We've had a lot of phases, and other bands have come along and really recuperated the orchestra format, but we've always maintained our popularity."
He's not bragging. And a renewed interest in Cuban dance music, both at home and abroad, has brought with it an even more fervent following. Los Van Van's records have been issued in the United States on Qbadisc, World Pacific, Mango, and other labels. Their CDs on the Cuban-owned Egrem label can be found in some Miami music stores as well. Most important, Formell says, having lost so much talent to exile, the state has given artists in general more autonomy and economic freedom. "We have an independence that was denied us three or four years ago," confirms the bandleader. "Now we're able to generate an income and work independently. We keep almost all of the profits from our music for ourselves." (The group still must give twenty percent of its earnings to a state agency. Previously it was required to fork over at least half.)
Over the years Los Van Van enjoyed successful tours in Europe, Latin America, and Japan. But when they tried to play in the States, their visas were denied by U.S. officials. This time, aided by San Juan promoter Leo Tizol, they were granted entry. According to Jorge Carmona Rodriguez, one of the attorneys who handled the details, the band's case was pushed through with support from Puerto Rican cultural officials.