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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.
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