Van Van Plays On

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.

Since its inception Los Van Van has kept an ear to the street and played to the people, and that symbiosis has been the key to its popularity. While the opposition to the band's concert in Miami noisily decries the fact that the group has fruitfully existed under communist rule, these same critics have chosen to ignore the importance of the orchestra's allegiance to the Cuban people (who are, ostensibly, the exiles' people as well). Each Los Van Van concert in Cuba is a celebration, an ecstatic, life-affirming party during which a hundred friends, family, and fans typically crowd onto the stage with the band members. Although they are clearly working-class heroes, the musicians embody revolutionary ideals in that their popularity in Cuba cuts through class divisions. While commanding five-figure fees for their shows in Europe, the band is a staple at free street festivals throughout Cuba, where they play to racially mixed crowds that now include several generations of fans. For 30 years Los Van Van has enabled the Cuban public to dance away their troubles.

Juan Formell is a not a político, but he is a nationalist. In the Sixties his goal was to bring fans of the Beatles and American pop back to Cuban music, which had been derided by young people in Havana as square. Early Van Van numbers are tinged with doo-wop vocals as well as cha-cha-cha and danzón rhythms. Eschewing the traditional acoustic bass in favor of its amplified version and adding synthesizers, Formell literally electrified Cuban dance music, and the innovative drummer Changuito added a rock-heavy kick to Latin percussion. The band got funkier in the Seventies, and as time went on, added more Latin rhythms to the mix.

"It's the Cuban music of always but with a new attitude. It's not salsa, nor is it traditional Cuban music," the band leader says. "It's the attitude of a new generation. What we're dealing with as musicians is how to confront that tradition of Cuban music, and how do you produce it for today.

"We have the same criterion as we did when we started: to make people dance," Formell continues. "When the music's not good, the people don't dance. We keep making the people dance, and for that they're going to thank us for the rest of their lives."

A Van Van concert outside of Cuba cannot compare with the exhilarating spectacle of the band's performances on the island, where the show's energy seems created as much by the public as by the musicians. Still, that excitement could be duplicated in Miami, home to thousands of Cuban immigrants who grew up with Los Van Van in Cuba. Those planning to overshadow the concert with showy demonstrations should remember that even if there were no controversy, this would still be a historic event. Through its music, however, Los Van Van will have the last word in Miami.

"I think that the success of Cuban music in the United States is very beneficial for everyone," Formell says.

"Definitively we have nothing at all to do with politics. What we want to do is simply play music, nothing more," he stresses. "For the people, for the Cubans, for the whole world."