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The 1000 people in the audience last Thursday night at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont, didn't know much about the Cuban band Los Van Van. "Everybody here who speaks Spanish raise your hand," singer Roberto Hernandez called from the stage (in Spanish). "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro ... uh, okay then." It didn't matter.
"Estand up, estand up please," ventured the singer in English. And they did, commencing a joyful hour and a half that for once crystalized the usually fuzzy notion of Cuban-American cultural exchange. While the band played the dizzingly polyrhythmic, funkified Cuban fusion they call songo, audience members who included elderly couples, children, teenage hip-hop fans, and neohippie college students danced variations of the white-boy shuffle, the Grateful Dead wave, the Phish-head wiggle, or brushed up on their dance-class salsa. At one point fedora-wearing, mustachioed singer Pedro Calvo rounded a group of eager kids on to the stage and lead them in hip-slinging steps. It could have been a scene from a Cuban version of Sesame Street.
One lonely security guard stood by the stage door, and the crowd inside was deaf to the controversy that has surrounded the Miami concert. "The accusation that Los Van Van is Fidel Castro's right arm is ridiculous," says Flynn Theater artistic director Arnie Malina, scoffing at the mere mention of Miami. "They're such a fun dance band, and we're just glad to have them."
The Burlington theater hosts a yearly Latino Festival and has recently presented the Cuban bands Afro-Cuban All Stars and Cubanismo, both to enthusiastic crowds. "We get a diverse audience of people here who are interested in world music," Malina says, adding that spectators include members of Burlington's tiny Central American community. One obvious target audience is missing among the city's population, Malina notes: "I'm not aware of any Cubans here."
A few Cuba supporters had materialized by the end of the show, waving a large Cuban flag. But most of the audience was like one local newspaper reporter, who hadn't even heard of Los Van Van, but quickly picked up on the Cuban groove. "If you relax and don't use your brain too much you can dance to it," she said. "That's what this music's about."
Los Van Van has been at the top of Cuba's dance card for 30 years, and had already attracted a cultlike international following long before the current Cuban music revival. Among the islanders, band leader Juan Formell is as well-known as Castro, and is arguably more popular. (A running joke in Havana goes like this: A hundred years from now, what will the encyclopedia entry for Fidel Castro say? President in power in Cuba during the era of Los Van Van.) The 57-year-old Formell says the history of contemporary Cuba can be found in his group's music. A two-CD retrospective just released by Caribe Productions documents the evolution of music and dance styles popular in Cuba over the past three decades. Song subjects, which include overcrowding in Havana, black market dealings, love triangles, and Santería prayers, all convey the ingenuity, passion, and sheer faith inherent in surviving everyday life on the island.
"We've always done stories in which the characters resemble the people in the audience," Formell explains. "The characters are just like them, so they get involved in the songs." Los Van Van's music is also autobiographical, detailing the musicians' (often hilarious) macho conquests, and the band's musical prowess and longevity. Recent picaresque numbers about shopping sprees and waiting anxiously for checks to arrive from abroad reflect the successful Cuban musicians' newfound affluence and ascendance to a privileged class as wielders of dollars in Cuba's dual economy.
The band's lyrics, mostly penned by Formell or brilliant keyboardist/composer Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso -- Cuba's latter-day Gershwin -- have humor, heart, and spark. And, following a tradition of Cuban popular music, crafty metaphors abound. Is that the smell of overripe fruit at the outdoor market or the scent of a passing woman? That tough old hen coagulating in the arroz con pollo: Do they, as rumor has it, mean Castro?
"It's social commentary; it's not political," Formell says of Van Van's lyrics. "There are things you can't say clearly, so you disguise them. That's fundamental in our music."
The energetic new album, Lllego Van Van (Havana Caliente) captures Los Van Van at the top of its game. The release, distributed by Atlantic Records, is the band's first with an American label. Formell concedes the record is an effort to appeal to a broader audience: The disc is heavy on tall tales about sexual escapades, black-power anthems, and odes to the greatness of Los Van Van, and as well as songs that deal less with the minutiae of the Cuban experience. "There's not so much chronicle or criticism," notes the band leader. "The themes are more universal."
The band's intricate, dance-driven Caribbean soul is a deftly orchestrated chaotic whirl, a grooving amalgamation of son, Afro-Cuban rumba, rock, funk, jazz, salsa, and other Latin beats. The phrase "feel-good music" perfectly describes the sound of Los Van Van.
Formell, a native of Pinar del Rio and veteran of Havana's famed Orquesta Reve, founded his own group, Los Van Van, in 1969. He adopted the name after Castro's disastrous attempt to dramatically increase the sugar harvest to ten million tons, a work campaign promoted with the slogan "los diez miliones van; de que van, van" ("the ten million go; what goes, goes"). Despite the absurd rumor lately spread in Miami that the group was named because they performed for the sugar workers as they toiled in the fields, Formell's band became Los Van Van because the phrase "de que van, van" quickly entered the popular lexicon and was used constantly in daily speech.