Kulchur

How about a little music with your drama?

Once again, the cultural commissars of Miami's Cuban-exile community have cracked their whips. The result: the embarrassing spectacle of city officials falling all over themselves in their quest to cancel the first local appearance of legendary Cuban timba outfit Los Van Van. Of the group's 28 tour stops around the United States and Canada, only Miami officials have raised objections to the group performing; rest assured that any squawking over State Department legalities involved in Cuban bands performing on our shores is pure semantics.

If you relied on the Herald's whitewashed coverage of this affair, you only got half the story. That paper's dry accounts bent over backward to portray aggrieved exile leaders as rational, and understandably upset by the arrival of one of Cuba's most popular bands, an event that was somehow "culturally inappropriate" to their delicate sensibilities. The discourse was all very dignified and gentlemanly, unless you turned on your radio and tuned in to the Spanish-language AM stations -- Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) -- in particular. There, prominent exile figures practically foamed at the mouth, threatening to blow up the James L. Knight Center if the "dogs" and "bastards" of Los Van Van ever set foot on its stage (all this in the on-air presence of Mayor Joe Carollo, mind you, who merely thanked the callers for their input). The outpouring of heated emotion reached its comical apex when jazz man Arturo Sandoval, Miami's own answer to Whittaker Chambers, called in to reassure everyone that during his spell as a Communist Party stalwart back in Cuba, he never had anything to do with Los Van Van. Thanks, Arturo. Stay tuned for next week, when the always-conscientious Sandoval calls back to clarify that he wasn't involved in the Waco killings, either.

Of course liberal supporters of Los Van Van's sojourn to Miami have been no less disingenuous. Claiming the concert is strictly a freedom-of-speech issue, Havana Caliente (the band's record label) has been adamant in stressing that Los Van Van has nothing to do with "politics," and that this is simply another harmless bunch of pop musicians.

Punk, not New Wave: French director Olivier Assayas's latest film hits the Bill Cosford Cinema
Punk, not New Wave: French director Olivier Assayas's latest film hits the Bill Cosford Cinema

Nothing could be further from the truth. Los Van Van matters precisely because it has always been a political band, in the best sense of the word. Nowhere is the phrase "the personal is political" more apt than in Castro's Cuba, and throughout Los Van Van's 30-year existence, the band has never shied from all manner of social criticism. Its songs have dealt with every aspect of modern-day life on the island, from food shortages to the often-essential checks that arrive from Miami relatives. Indeed it is this very topicality that has earned the band its foremost place in the hearts of their many fans.

What rankles the exile community is that Los Van Van turns a critical eye equally upon the mini-me caudillos of Miami and Havana's party bureaucrats -- an attitude in stark contrast to that of, say, Arturo Sandoval, whose ideology seems to shift according to the dictates of his music career. It is Los Van Van's refusal to pledge fealty to the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa that earns the group continued enmity in our back yard. Such an attitude shouldn't be papered over; it should be saluted.

At press time Los Van Van was being offered an October 11 date at the James L. Knight Center as city officials, now cognizant of the uncomprehending international spotlight being focused on them, try to enact some PR damage control. October 9 (the original evening slated for Los Van Van) has been handed over to the Bay of Pigs veterans organization Brigade 2506, which intends to hold its own concert. Here's an idea for the vets' opening number: "Send in the Clowns."


It's been said, only partly in jest, that Martin Scorsese makes movies simply to put his favorite songs in them. Although somewhat backhanded, it's still a compliment. Scorsese understands on a fundamental level the power and emotional response a particular song can have within a film's mise en scène. Try and imagine Robert De Niro's animated dance in the middle of Mulberry Street in Mean Streets without Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Mickey's Monkey" blaring behind him, or the crescendo of Goodfellas without Eric Clapton's "Layla" spinning out epically.

In the same esteemed company as Scorsese when it comes to visceral soundtracking is French director Olivier Assayas. One of the leading lights of the current "new" New Wave of French cinema, a group that includes fellow auteurs Claire Denis (Nénette et Boni) and Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life ... Or How I Got into an Argument), Assayas's work is distinguished by its sense of flow: utterly absorbing cinematography punctuated by dreamily transcendent flashes of action. At his best, as in 1994's semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale Cold Water, Assayas uses rock and roll (such as Roxy Music) to conjure the kinetic rush of pure feeling, to bypass the mind, and simply enrapture.

Assayas's latest film, Late August, Early September, comes to the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables this weekend. When I spoke with Assayas last summer, he had just finished shooting the picture, though at the time he was calling it Regrets, a barely veiled clue toward his take on Late August, Early September's look at a group of thirtysomethings muddling their way through personal relationships and into adulthood. As always the character's lost youth was foremost in his mind.

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