Powerful, political Cuban beat 

When Ricky Martin sings about "Living' La Vida Loca" he might as well be talking about the last few weeks for the legendary Cuban dance band Los Van Van. Currently on a 28-city U.S. tour in support of their new album, "Llego ... Van Van" (Van Van Is Here), the band has been at the cutting edge of Latin music for more than 30 years, influencing generations of other artists and receiving worldwide acclaim. And there still at it, pushing boundaries.

But when The Miami Herald reported in early September that Los Van Van (pronounced ban-ban) was going to make its Miami debut Oct. 9 at the Knight Center, controversy erupted. Talk-show airwaves were flooded with complaints, and many anti-communist Miami residents insisted the band was a symbol of a reprehensible communist regime. Miami mayor Joe Carollo flew off the handle, calling Los Van Van "the official communist band of Fidel Castro."

After more than two weeks of bitter uncertainty, Los Van Van is scheduled to play Oct. 9 at the Miami Arena, but not before they make a last-minute stop Thursday, Oct. 7, at House of Blues. Still, there's no denying the political undertones that will be at play along with the wildly popular and festive music, described in the band's press release as "the sound of the party after the revolution."

For Juan Formell, founder, singer and bass player of Los Van Van, a little controversy is the price you pay for the success of Latin music.

"Latin music changes all the time; that's why it's popular. Today in the U.S. you have kids who are listening to this exciting music which combines all kinds of sounds, and it certainly doesn't sound like the music their parents listened to."

Formell should know. His band, nicknamed "The Rolling Stones of Latin Music," is a multigenerational mix of old-time Cuban masters and photogenic heartthrobs who play a highly danceable mixture of traditional Afro-Cuban styles and American pop that Formell largely invented. This style is evident on "Llego ... Van Van" (Havana Caliente/Atlantic), which combines the big beats of rock and funk, and the ecstatic horns of New York salsa, along with moving mambo and rumba rhythms.

For Formell all this musical mixing started early. He was born in 1942 in the Pueblo Nuevo district of Havana and learned guitar from Cuban bassist Orestes Urfe, as well as orchestration from his father. After playing briefly in a military band at 17, he began gigging in Havana nightclubs with revered and recorded Cuban musicians like Elena Burke and Elio Reve. As a member of Orquesta Reve, he helped evolve Reve's traditional Afro-Cuban sound into the modern changui by adding an electric guitar and bass to the orchestra.

In 1969 Formell formed Los Van Van to further develop his musical ideas. They started out as a traditional charanga, distinguished by unison singing, and flutes and violins as the principal instruments. But after listening to everyone from Cuban singer Bey More to the Beatles and Elvis, Formell added electric guitars, tap drums and multiple-horn sections.

All this experimentation led to the development of Los Van Van's signature songo sound in the early 1970s. Songo combined the slower, traditional ensemble playing of Cuban son music -- the kind explored on Ry Cooder's Grammy-winning "Buena Vista Social Club" CD that accompanies the documentary of the same title (opening in October at Enzian Theater) -- with irrepressible Caribbean rhythms and elements of American pop. The style swept through Cuba, becoming one of the most influential since the cha-cha. Los Van Van was hailed everywhere as the preeminent Cuban dance band.

Well, almost everywhere. Because of Cold War politics, recognition in the United States was slow. For all of the '70s and '80s the band wasn't allowed to tour in the U.S. But with tensions easing, Los Van Van came across for their first tour in 1997 and are currently on their fourth trek across the states.

Despite the fuss of late, Formell does not seem all that concerned about any future concerts, including Miami.

"Los Van Van is all about making people dance. We've made people dance in Minnesota, in Ohio and even in Lawrence, Kan. As long as they dance, I'll be happy."

But the city of Miami wasn't as easy to please. After the initial backlash, the mayor put pressure on Globe Facility Services, the company that manages the Knight Center for the city, to ask the band to provide documentation that they were not profiting from the tour and to pay for extra security for the Miami show.

The demand was seen by the band as an attempt to work a preposterous loophole: Under federal law, bands touring America from communist countries can only be paid a small per diem in addition to covered travel expenses.

Los Van Van promoter Debbie Ohanian shot back with the response that the band was complying with all laws and that securing those documents was unprecedented and impossible in the requested time frame. She also noted that more than a dozen Cuban bands had played in Miami over the last year, with little or no protest.

Nonetheless, Globe canceled the show and conspicuously scheduled an anti-Castro group called Brigade 2506 in the time slot. Ohanian and the ACLU vowed to sue the city if they couldn't play. According to the band's tour manager Elena Pena, negotiations were still going on late last week until the Knight Center made one last demand -- the one that completely shut negotiations down.

"They told us that they were going to cover the dance floor with tables and chairs and not let anyone dance," Pena said, laughing. "I knew we had to move, because there was no way this band would stand for that."

The floors will be wide open at the House of Blues, sure to hold both the curious and the longtime faithful as they experience yet another resounding piece of the world-music puzzle.

More by Todd Deery


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