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When Colombian pop phenom Juanes announced last year he was planning to hold the second installation of his Peace Without Borders Concert in Cuba, Miami's exile community erupted in discord. Oh, there were some who said it was fine, and a few others even backed his decision. But the overall response was one of derision. Juanes and his supporters, meanwhile, begged the public to separate politics from art.
Whether we agree with it or not, or even believe it is possible in Cuba's case, is irrelevant. The real question is whether Miami's public can separate the two for one night, recognizing art for what it is and setting aside the politics and rabble-rousing. Because the Magic City will once again have to put it to test this week, when one of Cuba's most legendary bands, Los Van Van, comes to town for a performance at the James L. Knight Center.
It will be the group's first appearance in the states in more than ten years, after having been kept at bay by former President George W. Bush's policies. The musicians were finally able to obtain a visa this year thanks to the Obama administration's favoring softer cultural restrictions.
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They still might face a rocky road arriving at their gig. When the venerable orchestra members last visited our fair city for a show at the Miami Arena in 1999, they were met with a less than welcoming reception. More than 3,500 protesters turned out in uproar. It was a dramatic example of how passion-fueled politics can divide citizenry and make people forget simple social courtesies. The angry crowd shouted, spat, and threw garbage at concertgoers, eventually requiring police presence in riot gear to ensure fans' safety.
But bassist, musical director, bandleader, and founder Juan Formell seems confident things will be calmer this time. "Miami has changed a lot," he recently told Reuters. "There is a new, younger generation that thinks differently. I was in Miami recently and nobody treated me poorly. On the contrary, people wanted to have pictures taken with me; they asked for autographs."
So, yes, ideological baggage still follows the group — but fans adore it as one of the most important forces in the development of Cuban music. To put Los Van Van into musical perspective, the group this past December celebrated its 40th anniversary as an orchestra. They are to Cuba what El Gran Combo is to Puerto Rico, and Juan Formell is their Rafael Ithier.
Formell formed the group in 1969, striking out on his own after leaving his previous group, Changui, for which he was also musical director. The then-29-year-old would lay the foundation for what would become one of the quintessential Cuban sounds. He began with a standard charanga lineup, using the son-heavy orchestra format as the basis for the group. But he revamped it, adding a brass section to the traditional flute, legato strings, vocals, and rhythm section. He also added a drum kit, as well as previously unused electronic instruments.
The group frappéed influences ranging from son to funk to Afro-Cuban to disco in this newly souped-up blender that was Los Van Van. Formell and company, along with Ikare (with whom Arturo Sandoval played during the early part of his career), unwittingly pioneered a subgenre of salsa known today as timba. But the group had musical detractors even in the early days. "They said we were not doing Cuban music," Formell told Reuters. "But time went on and we managed to win people over."
The group even flirted with jazz, rock, and hip-hop. This in turn led to the creation of another genre altogether, of which Los Van Van is credited as being the sole proponent. This style became known as songo, and some consider it the heart of timba. Using the song's heartbeat of a foot pattern on the bass drum, known as tumbao, songo is more about a feeling than actual arrangement.
But regardless of what you call the style, anyone who has witnessed Los Van Van's dominance of the stage — be it on video or in person — can attest to its raw energy and talent. Fans of the group, and of Cuban music in general, will have a chance to witness the spectacle this Sunday. Let's hope they can attend without having to dodge rocks and trash.