Hurricane Van Van

Promoter Debbie Ohanian stared down the City of Miami and won a victory in the area's latest absurdo

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo needs to brush up on basic civics, not to mention civility. Appearing recently as a guest on Radio Mambí's (WAQI-AM 710) weeknight call-in show, Mesa Redonda, Carollo egged on host Armando Perez-Roura and callers as they hurled insults at the Cuban dance band Los Van Van. "Dogs," "bastards," "garbage," "murderers," and "torturers" were all terms used to describe the well-known group. State Department officials were deemed "the Che Guevaras in Washington." Former Cuban political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, now an outspoken proponent of dialogue with the island, was repeatedly mocked as the kind of liberal scoundrel who would attend a concert by the ensemble. Ex-communist Arturo Sandoval phoned in just to let everyone know he had nothing to do with Los Van Van. Sounding as excited as a horny teenager on the eve of his first school dance, Carollo invited the trumpeter to perform at an event organized by Bay of Pigs veterans that subsequently replaced an announced concert by Los Van Van at the James L. Knight Center on October 9.

Even when one caller warned that the Knight Center "was going to blow sky-high" if Los Van Van appeared, Carollo did nothing to temper the hate mongering. He merely joined the show's host in thanking the listener for calling. Carollo told the audience he decided to oppose the performance when he found out the Cubans were scheduled to perform at a City of Miami facility. He considered it an outrage.

The show was just one skirmish in Debbie Ohanian's Los Van Van war. A few days later, as city offices started closing in anticipation of Hurricane Floyd, Ohanian was hard at work in her home office. She had already been hit by a storm of controversy over her plan to present the Cuban group. The first date she proposed, October 9, collapsed when theater management caved in to pressure from Carollo and several Miami commissioners. This past week, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) became involved, the sides agreed to reschedule the event for October 11.

Debbie Ohanian: Los Van Van must play
Steve Satterwhite
Debbie Ohanian: Los Van Van must play

A gregarious hostess and shrewd businesswoman, Ohanian is the owner of Starfish. Best known for offering weekly salsa lessons that attract some of the area's most agile rueda dancers, the South Beach club has gained prominence as a venue for a half-dozen recent concerts by bands from Cuba. Ohanian, a clothing designer, is the kind of effortlessly glamorous woman who looks comfortable in high heels. This morning she is casually dressed, as if for fashionable combat, in khaki-color cargo pants and a black T-shirt.

Ohanian has experience with cultural conflict. As a girl she demonstrated with other Armenians who gathered annually at the United Nations to commemorate the anniversary of their people's 1915 genocide at the hands of Turks. Her group wanted the Turkish government censured for its role in the massacre.

Pacing the floors of her vast apartment above the club (a Mediterranean-style building on West Avenue that once housed the venerable Italian restaurant and Mafia hangout, Gotti's), she holds a portable telephone to her ear with one hand and carries a cellular in the other. Both phones have been ringing all morning.

Ohanian takes a call from a Sun-Sentinel reporter, then dials an ABC News producer in New York. "We have a really wild situation going on here and we need some national exposure," she says, explaining that officials and the Cuban exile community have mobilized against the concert. "These people are trying to censor what's going on in Miami as if it's not part of the United States. We think if we could get some national coverage on this these people they may start to bend a little."

A computer printer spews sheets of paper with the e-mail addresses and phone and fax numbers of Carollo and city commissioners. Ohanian has decided to run ads in local media, urging music fans to protest the concert ban by writing to the officials.

The promoter turns on the speakerphone and calls several local record-store owners to request that they add their businesses' names to the ad. Only Carlos Suarez, manager of Esperanto Music, agrees. One Little Havana proprietor even lies, falsely contending her store does not carry Los Van Van CDs.

"I'm not against the concert but I don't want to get involved," stammers a Hialeah store manager. "I don't want anything to come out with my phone number that says I'm either against it or for it. I've got a lot of customers; I've been in business a long time. Music isn't political but you've got commissioners and the mayor involved, so this is political." The manager adds that he has received many calls from hopeful ticket buyers inquiring about the status of the concert. He cheerily reports that the band's new album, Llego Van Van (Van Van Is Here), has been selling well.

"What [those opposed to the concert] don't realize is that Los Van Van are selling more records than ever," Ohanian says. "People who didn't even know what a Van Van was are running to the store to buy the CD. Even people who aren't interested in Latin music, let alone Cuban music."

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