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Like visits by other Cuban artists -- who, over the past few years, have increasingly bypassed Miami -- Los Van Van's trip was a cultural exchange; owing to the U.S. trade embargo they are not permitted to profit from their tour. Band manager Americo Miranda Ortiz says the profits from the concerts covered expenses plus a $50 per diem for each band member, and the rest of the proceeds went to music-school scholarship funds and other causes. In addition to performances, the tour included workshops at cultural centers and colleges.
"It's all nonprofit -- nobody's making money off of this," says Bill Martinez, a lawyer who works with Accion Latina, a San Francisco cultural organization that sponsored the concerts there. "It was a labor of love, there was a lot of community support." Puerto Rican promoter Tizol says the band was approached by a university in Miami about appearing there -- he won't say which school -- but in light of the violent local reception that recently greeted Gonzalo Rubalcaba and other visiting Cuban nationals, Los Van Van chose to test the waters in more hospitable American cities.
While other Cuban musicians -- notably pianist Chucho Valdes, Afro-Cuban singer Lazaro Ros, and the folkloric group Los Munequitos de Matanzas -- were trailblazers in terms of visits to the U.S. from the island, those artists' appearances were directed toward specialized audiences; Los Van Van's sensational U.S. dates, on the other hand, recalled the days when Machito's Afro-Cubans took the country by storm.
"It's been many years since an orchestra of this kind from Cuba has toured the United States like this," Formell asserts. "I think it's a historic event, and I think it's going to open those doors up a little bit."
In some ways that's happening already. The New York-based Latin music label RMM recently signed Cuban salsa singer Issac Delgado to a recording contract. More dramatically, Silvio Rodriguez, the folk balladeer known as "the voice of the revolution," is slated to play in San Juan in March. Los Van Van have been invited by Bill Graham Presents to play two big musical events this summer -- the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and San Francisco's New Orleans by the Bay fest.
Formell hopes they might play in Miami in the foreseeable future. "I think our experience in Miami was beneficial, because it served as a thermometer to let us know what was happening there," says the bandleader, who saw the goings-on at La Llave on Channel 51's six o'clock news. "I think there's a big Cuban population in Miami that wants to see Los Van Van play."
But, he admits, there's another sector that doesn't want it to happen. And though Formell deems that group "a minority," a phone survey conducted by Channel 51 that day suggests the opposite. Of those who responded to a poll announced during the newscast, 759 said Los Van Van should play in Miami, 3791 said they should stay away.
Still, Formell is optimistic. "I believe in the future that will be resolved. We don't come here to be political, we come simply to play, like we played in New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, where there were also Cuban communities and they accepted us with open arms. Nothing happened, nobody bothered us. I think that can come to pass in Miami too."
-- Judy Cantor