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Maintaining their immense popularity at home for the past three decades, Los Van Van continues to be the hardest-working band in Cuban show business. They have amassed a dedicated following abroad as well, and this past December they set a precedent by embarking on a five-city tour of the United States, packing houses all the way.
They have already returned this month for another series of concerts -- in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, among other cities. The band had hoped to return to the club S.O.B.'s in Manhattan, where they were given an enthusiastic reception on their last trip. But that idea was discouraged by the U.S. State Department; officials told the tour's promoter, Bill Graham Presents, that the venue was not a good choice.
"The idea behind promoting cultural exchange of this type is noncommercial venues -- the traditional concerts in the park, jazz festivals, university settings -- that's the kind of thing we are trying to promote," explains Jim Theis, a consular officer in the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs. "We are not interested in promoting tours that are basically a series of club dates, where the promoter and the club make a lot of money off it. That's not the cultural exchange we're looking for. In a long tour, an occasional setting like that is not a strict violation of the embargo, but that's not what we're trying to encourage." (As employees of the Cuban government, musicians are prohibited from entering the United States and must apply for a waiver in order to get a visa. Under the restrictions of the embargo, Cuban groups may perform here only as a cultural exchange and may receive no compensation aside from the cost of transportation, lodging, and a per diem.)
Van Van leader Juan Formell is disappointed by the decision. "I think that if we're given a visa we should be able to play anywhere in the United States," he said before a concert last month in Cancun, where Los Van Van performed a series of club dates. "We're really sorry about it."
Other bands, though, are following Los Van Van's U.S. lead. "One way or another, we have to enter the United States," contends NG La Banda's Jose Luis Cortes. "First, there are three million Cubans who don't know my music. It's also unquestionable that if you want to triumph in the world, you have to get into the United States."
Of course, Miami remains the forbidden city. In September the first Midem Latin American and Caribbean Music Market meeting is scheduled to be held here. Sponsored by the Paris-based music promotion company Reed Midem Organisation, the four-day event at the Miami Beach Convention Center will draw record labels that represent Latin artists and will feature performances by a variety of acts. But no Cubans will be allowed to perform or attend.
"We're not working with the Cuban agencies or Cuban government or anything of that sort," confirms Barney Bernhard, U.S. president of Reed Midem. "We're prohibiting it. The last thing we want is a mob scene at the event."
Ridiculous, counters Cari Diez of Magic Music. "Can you imagine a Latin American music conference without Cuban music?" she scoffs. "They should have held it in Puerto Rico."
Cuban musicians tend to say they'd play in Miami if they could, largely because they have relatives and friends here. But they know they aren't wanted by one sector of the community, and by now most consider it a nonissue. La Charanga's David Calzado, for his part, doesn't really care. "I want to go to the United States, but I don't want to conquer the Cuban audience in the United States -- I already know that I can conquer them," he says. "I want to go to New York and play for an American public. Of course, I love the Cubans who are there because they're Cubans, the same as me. But that's not the audience I'm after in the United States."
La Charanga has toured extensively in Europe and Mexico, and group members seem particularly conscious of their potential foreign audience -- their CD Pa' Que Se Entere La Habana includes a glossary of slang words used in their songs; a $100 bill with Ben Franklin decked out in a pirate's outfit and holding a microphone graces the cover. They have no plans as yet to come to America, but Calzado is confident the time will come. Meanwhile, he stresses, he's happy playing at home.
"In spite of the difficulties -- the poor sound system, the trouble we have getting paid -- we have to play in Cuba for the Cuban public today," he says as he tosses a ten-dollar bill on the bar at a five-star Havana hotel to pay for a round of drinks. "There are things that the public is in no way responsible for. The system has its characteristics, but the people are the people. We're going to go and play at the Tropical whether we get paid for it or not, because that's the public that needs to see us. And they're the ones who are going to support us.