Willy Chirino gets slippery

It seemed absolutely fitting that the Los Van Van concert took place during the same week that the Justice Department finally released the 1948 grand jury testimony of Richard Nixon's crusade against Alger Hiss, an event that had served as a catalyst for the McCarthy era's anti-communism hysteria. After all, the Los Van Van fracas recalled nothing so much as that dark period's dueling bouts of civil-liberty-destroying redbaiting and surreal comedy. The former is what comes to mind after Mayor Alex Penelas jumped on the anti-Van Van bandwagon (can you say "cowardly ploy for re-election?"), but the latter -- laughter -- is the only proper response when it comes to dealing with a character like Willy Chirino, salsero poster boy for the cultural commissars of the Cuban-exile community. How else to view the "startling admission" that Chirino, a scion of the exile's boycott against Cuba, once actually performed with the heathen musicians in Los Van Van? As the exile's own thought police gasped for breath and plotted their next tactical move, one could clearly see McCarthy's ghost in the background, taking fatal aim at those army generals. Meanwhile the obedient spin-doctors at the Herald went into action, revising Chirino's history as a man who had always supported cultural exchanges with Cuba-based artists, even welcoming them into his home when they visited Miami for concerts. Hold on. Isn't this the same Willy Chirino who made a point of appearing on Juana's Children, an NBC television special that aired during the MIDEM music convention this past June, wherein he led a host of exile musicians in decrying the Miami appearance of Cuban performers such as Pedro Luis Ferrer, Compay Segundo, and Barbarito Torres? Oh, how quickly we forget.

Of course this two-faced nature is not unique to "Slick" Willy. Many Miami-based exile artists sing a different tune when they're away from the eyes and ears of South Florida. Saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, for one, has been spotted at European music festivals acting chummy backstage with Los Van Van. Back in Miami, however, D'Rivera begins foaming at the mouth about those dreaded communist agents and "cultural insensitivity," offensively playing the Holocaust card and likening the local appearance of Cuban bands to that of a Nazi orchestra traveling to Israel. Even more of a shallow act is the insistence on the part of people such as Chirino and D'Rivera that exile musicians are barred from performing in Cuba. The island's premier jazzman, Chucho Valdés, has publicly extended a standing invitation to Gloria Estefan to visit Havana for a concert, an invitation that Estefan has so far declined. Then again, her decision to keep her treacly pop confined to the United States may be a blessing in disguise: Haven't the Cuban people suffered enough?

Duck, you sucker: Los Van Van protests continue as Willy Chirino gets slippery
Duck, you sucker: Los Van Van protests continue as Willy Chirino gets slippery

Prince came out of reclusion for a live set at the Fontainebleau Hilton hotel on Saturday, October 9, and had the performance come on any other evening, it might have been impressive. But only an hour after Los Van Van and the Cuban-exile spectacle wrapped up downtown, it was hard to view Prince's preening and strutting as anything more than a solid demonstration of the great pop machine in action. It was all certainly entertaining. His Purple majesty enacted a tightly scripted audience invasion of the stage, launched into some J.B.'s-esque chicken-scratch guitar play, and then oversaw a barrage of Godzilla-like sonic bombs courtesy of bassist Larry Graham -- reminding everyone just how crucial Graham's contributions to Sly and the Family Stone were.

The occasion for all this pomp was the Billboard and Airplay Monitor Radio Awards dinner, a nationwide gathering of heavyweight Top 40 radio programmers, precisely the crowd Prince's new label, Arista, is hoping to woo back to the Purple One's camp after many years of lackluster record sales. Postshow, however, several of the radio bigwigs seemed less than impressed ("Can't they make him play his hits?" sighed one), preferring to spend their time in the valet-parking line gossiping about Arista Records president Clive Davis.

You know the proliferation of cell phones is getting out of hand when no less a figure than Fidel Castro is annoyed. Or as the Great Communicator exclaimed to a reporter in Havana last month: "Some believe they are very important because they carry one of those little phones." Amen, brother.

A similar spirit of contempt for the telecommunications revolution is at work within the music of The Spacewürm, who uses a modified police scanner to eavesdrop on cellular and cordless phone calls, recording the conversations he snatches from the ether, using them to anchor ambient soundscapes. Illegal? Yes. Endlessly fascinating? Oh yeah. In I Listen: A Document of Digital Voyeurism. The Spacewürm ditches the audio and issues the cream of his phone recordings in book form. It's a collection that ranges from the hilarious to the downright odd, ranging from drug deals, wife swaps, and extramarital affairs in progress, to two police officers complaining about a "masseuse" dressed like "snake-a-saurus" who keeps requesting ride-alongs with the male officers in their department. "She said she was interested in law enforcement, but she was wearing a halter top.... She was more interested in, I dunno, maybe finding a husband."

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