Going to a Go-Go: Los Van Van's Juan Formell illuminates the politics of dancing
Going to a Go-Go: Los Van Van's Juan Formell illuminates the politics of dancing
Cindy Karp


"I feel sorry for the Cuban community in Miami. Because they have imposed on themselves by way of the Right, the same condition that Castro has imposed on Cuba. Total intolerance. And ours is worse. Because it is entirely voluntary." -- Bernardo Benes

Another week, another round of Los Van Van insanity, courtesy of the aging cultural commissars of the Cuban-exile community desperately trying to maintain their ideological stranglehold on Miami. It's all too easy to simply roll one's eyes and laugh off the barrage of ludicrous pronouncements being issued from the forces trying to do something -- anything -- to block the first local concert by Cuba's Los Van Van. The band's chief sin seems to be that its social criticism is levied as equally on Castro as it is on Miami's wannabe jefes. Yet as Mayor Joe Carollo stoops to a crude (even for him) level of vintage red-baiting in labeling the concert's promoter Debbie Ohanian "Havana" Debbie, it's clear there's much more at stake here than a controversial cultural presentation, or even a defense of free speech.

For 40 years now, el exilio has enforced a literal reign of terror on Miami: issuing a dogma that decries Castro's exploitation of workers but turns a blind eye to exile-owned sweatshops and union busting, pursuing a world view that criticizes Castro's press controls but doles out bombings and assassinations to those Cuban Americans who chose to publicly decline kissing the ring of Jorge Mas Canosa. Over the past decade much of this violence has moved behind the scenes (last week's Coconut Grove car bombing was a chilling reminder of the days when explosions regularly rocked downtown), allowing self-deluding liberals to believe the city had finally made some "progress," rising above the seething social tensions of its past. Thus we had the PR spin surrounding last summer's MIDEM Americas music-industry convention on Miami Beach, where MIDEM officials publicly explained away the glaring absence of Cuban bands (at a time when interest in those musicians is skyrocketing) by citing a desire for stylistic diversity. Local media dutifully parroted that line, even as one high-ranking MIDEM staffer privately conceded to Kulchur (printed in a July 8 column), "Last year was enough. The demonstrations, people screaming, the bomb threats! In Cannes or New York we'd have no such problem, but here in Miami [hosting Cuban bands] is just impossible to do."

Driving that point home even further, the ghost of McCarthyism and the blacklist again reared its ugly head as Nestor Rodriguez, the Miami City Ballet's spineless director of development, buckled under pressure from some of the ballet's right-wing donors, canceling that organization's party at Ohanian's South Beach nightclub, Starfish. In any other city Rodriguez's cowardly action and debasement of a cultural institution would have gotten him instantly fired. In Miami, however, even as more principled ballet administrators reinstated their party at Starfish, Rodriguez could escape with only a lukewarm apology and a slap on the wrist.

"It all backfired," Ohanian says in a conversation with Kulchur about the exile leaders' attempt to blackmail the ballet. "Los Van Van was the best thing to happen to the Miami City Ballet all year. Who the hell even cared about the ballet before? Now they finally had to take a stand, so my hat's off to them. Maybe they did, in a hurry, think, 'Oh my God, it's the Miami of twenty years ago; we can't be associated with Debbie.' But so many people were upset with them for canceling the party, they've actually come out a hero in all of this, certainly more so than the mayor, the James L. Knight Center, or any of those artists who couldn't open their mouths about anything," Ohanian adds, referring to a recent Herald article in which local pop royalty figures such as Gloria Estefan and Willy Chirino refused to comment on the Los Van Van brouhaha.

As the October 9 Miami Arena date for the Los Van Van concert nears, Ohanian remains undaunted. "If I have to be the spokeswoman for everyone who just wants to go to a concert and not be bothered, well, I've put myself in this position, so I've got to finish what I've started," she says. "There's a lot of housecleaning that needs to be done in Miami, generationally speaking. The good reinforcement is when I walk through my club on a Friday night and all these kids say to me, 'You keep up the fight! We're all going to that concert and we don't care what anybody tells us!'"

Lost in all the commotion surrounding Los Van Van's imminent arrival to Miami is that band's opening act: Barbarito Torres, lutist and linchpin of the Buena Vista Social Club. On Havana Café, Torres's new solo album, he's joined by several of the Buena Vista players, including Omara Portuondo and Ibrahim Ferrer (coming to town for his own concert in February -- alert the exiles!), who help craft a wonderful set of songs. The core is Torres's shimmery, nimble-fingered picking, which anchors slowly whirling grooves that seem to float through the air. If there were any justice, South Beach restaurants would be required to halt their ad nauseum spinning of Gypsy Kings CDs in favor of Havana Café. Barring that, attendees to Los Van Van's show should restrain the urge to parade in front of protesters outside the arena in their finest Che T-shirts, and instead scoot inside for Torres's 7:30 p.m. set.

In the hyperaccelerated world of hip-hop, where "old-school" often refers to those far-off, hazy days of 1991, and 1986 -- the year Eric B. & Rakim broke -- is practically the era of the dinosaurs. A salute then to the still thriving Rakim, whose growling, pantherlike raps on his early singles "Paid in Full" and "I Know You Got Soul," retain their sense of immediacy and idiosyncratic flow more than a decade on. Rakim appears in the flesh, MCing a live set at Club Zen on Friday, October 9. Eric B. is absent from this engagement; holding down the turntable duties instead is Miami's own DJ Epps, whose latest mix tape, Friday, showcases a batch of solidly thumping, head-nodding rhythms, marred only by some very tired descents into gay-bashing.

A rationale for braving the horrors of Washington Avenue nightlife presents itself on Thursday, October 8, when New York City's Joey Beltram arrives at Liquid for a DJ set. Beltram helped forge the Brooklyn-centered NYC techno scene in the early '90s, releasing a string of singles whose pounding intensity and breakneck tempos became the template for what was eventually dubbed the Belgian sound, thanks to its enthusiastic championing by Belgian clubbers and producers, who in turn helped popularize Beltram's approach internationally. To Beltram's detractors, however (whose camp includes Kulchur), Belgian has all too often become a connotation for techno that confuses head-spinning speed with soulfulness, an end result in which the drug of choice is Tylenol. Then again, after braving the crush at Liquid's front door, skull-splitting beats may suit your mood perfectly.

Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678 or e-mail brett_sokol@miaminewtimes.com


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