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New Blood: Yenisel Valdez Fuentes, a singer with an earthy edge, is one of the new members of Los Van Van.

Cuban Invasion

Los Van Van reinvents itself with new members

By Dan Pulcrano

EVER SINCE a San Francisco promoter spotted Los Van Van at a Havana nightclub in 1995 and invited them to perform here, Cuba's top dance band has enjoyed an enthusiastic following in Santa Cruz and a handful of other U.S. cities.

Since their groundbreaking 1997 tour, stateside interest in Cuban music has soared, exemplified in the platinum-selling Buena Vista Social Club album and its various spin-offs, as well as a succession of tours by contemporary Cuban performers that has brought more Cubans to the U.S. than any event since the Mariel Boatlift. Meanwhile, the Latin music explosion brought artists like Santana, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Shakira into millions of record collections.

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Protect Me, Los Van Van: Metro's review of the 1999 tour, plus video clips of a concert in Havana.

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Despite five U.S. tours and a Grammy award in 2000, success on that scale has eluded the pioneering Los Van Van. In December, longtime front man Pedrito Calvo, one of the Caribbean island's best-known and most entertaining performers, left the band, and they spent the last five months in Havana regrouping. They're back to work now with an eight-city swing through California and New Mexico.

As he has before during the band's three-decade history, bandleader Juan Formell took the opportunity of Calvo's exit to freshen up the band's lineup. Joining Mario "Mayito" Rivera and Roberto Hernandez on lead vocals are Abel "Lele" Rosales Sotolongo, formerly of Pachito Alonzo's band and the son of one of the group's founding singers, and Yenisel Valdez Fuentes, who previously sang with José Luis Cortés' NG La Banda.

Los Van Van appeared with its new lineup last May 23 at Havana's Macumba nightclub. While the show lacked the polish that touring and Calvo's bolero-style crooning and choreographed steps added, the performance crackled with new energy. Charismatic singer Hernandez has capably taken over the centerstage mic, and Rivera's vocals remain as passionate as ever.

By the time the new lineup appeared at San Jose's Mexican Heritage Gardens last Saturday, the show was tight, and an enthusiastic outdoor dance crowd waving hands and Cuban flags greeted the band. Hernandez and Rivera capably took old standards to new levels, and solos by the two new singers drew enthusiastic audience response.

The 28-year-old Sotolongo proved a hit with young females, and his presence could energize Los Van Van with the same type of teen idol appeal that Santana enjoyed on its last tour with the addition of Watsonville-bred vocalist Andy Vargas. Fuentes similarly contributed the sexy dance steps for which Cuban females are legendary, along with big gritty vocals on the order of a Latin Etta James.

The fresh roster could reverse the defection of young Cuban music fans to edgier groups like Orishas, a Paris-based Cuban rap quartet that has taken the island's music scene by storm, culminating in last December's triumphant homecoming tour.

Musically freshened and touring once again, Los Van Van's challenge now remains on the business side. Legends should not have to suffer with inferior sound systems, like the one that dampened their San Jose show, and publicists should not be sending out photos with Calvo still in the picture. Los Van Van has a new story to tell, and with capable guidance, there's no reason why the band can't enjoy the type of popular success that greeted the repackaging of Santana or the Buena Vista Social Club.

As Santa Cruz will see on Saturday, the talent's all there.


Los Van Van performs Saturday (June 9) at 9pm at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25 adv. (454.0600).

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From the June 6-13, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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