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[whitespace] Los Van Van
Bodies in Motion: Los Van Van have made changes so recently that their publicity photos haven't caught up with their new lineup-two new singers will appear for the first time this week in California.

Que es lo que pasa con Van Van?

Forget mambo, forget cha-cha-cha, songo is the sound of Havana today

By Jesse Chuy Varela

THE MUSIC THAT Juan Formell and Los Van Van make is songo, a fusion that happened in 1969 when the trombone-driven son changui stylings of Elio Reve met the French-inspired string-and-flute charanga. With these sounds as its musical texture and the fresh groove of a funkified new beat with strong tinges of North American funk, rock and jazz, Los Van Van opened a dance-charged new chapter in Cuban pop music.

Featuring a complex interplay of strings and brass, the sound is light and floats over a rhythmic complex of trap drums, congas, timbales and hand percussion spewing out funky Caribbean beats. It was early Los Van Van drummers Blas Egues and Jose Luis Quintana (Changuito), who pioneered the songo and gave the Cuban people a pop groove that kept them dancing through the hardships of the "special period" when the former Soviet Union withdrew its aid.

Los Van Van (the Go Gos) are musical ambassadors who perform around the world on behalf of the Cuban government. Some Cuban-Americans say they are "propagandists" and should be kept out of the United States.

The group's 1999 clash with the Miami anti-Castro Cubans was a hurricane of controversy with Mayor Joe Carollo leading the charge and forcing cancellation of a scheduled appearance at the Knight Center. Los Van Van finally performed after the American Civil Liberties Union got involved. Ironically, the group was awarded a Grammy for Best Salsa Performance that year for its album Llegó ... Van Van: Van Van Is Here (Havana Caliente-Atlantic).

Formell and the band are no strangers to the Bay Area, with regular visits since their debut in January 1997 at Maritime Hall in San Francisco. With a trajectory of superb shows at the Monterey Jazz Festival and New Orleans by the Bay, Los Van Van brings its songo-fueled sounds to San Jose for a Havana-style outdoor party at the Mexican Heritage Plaza this Sunday.

WITH A CAST erupting with talent, they're at their prime with many members now stars in their own right. Twentysomething lead singer Mario "Mayito" Rivera is a popular figure on the Havana scene and launched a solo effort last year. Pianist/ arranger/composer/ Cesar "Pupi" Pedroso, who has written some of Los Van Van's biggest hits, also has a new one--"Y Los Que Son, Son" (timba)--and even Formell produced a nice side date--"La Voz del Son" (timba).

There have been some changes to the band--the charismatic Pedrito Calvo is now gone and singing with the Afro-Cuban Allstars. Mayito Rivera and Roberto Hernandez, who spent a long stretch alongside that giant who was characterized as the voice of Los Van Van for more than 20 years, continue with the addition of two new singers: 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 (Orisha), a vocalist formerly with NG La Banda.

Los Van Van appeared with its new lineup last Wednesday 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 mike, and Rivera's vocals are as strong as ever.

The four-person vocal lineup added a scrappy new passion to the band, which seemed last year to be heading in the direction of the Buena Vista Social Club and was being toppled as Cuba's leading party band by fresh faces like the Orishas, a rap band whose bootlegs have worked their way into the tape collection of just about every young Cuban.

Los Van Van's Macumba show proved a strong start for the newly configured and rested band, which has been hobbled slightly by bandleader-bassist Juan Formell's hand ailment. Keyboardist Boris Luna will tour in a leg cast, but his keyboard work is anything but stiff.

While Cuba is thousands of miles away, you can feel the timba percolation of Havana, a city that gyrates to Los Van Van. With the promise of agua fresca and sangria, a variety of barbecue and Latin cuisine and the totally swinging Charanga Nueve opening, the Mexican Heritage Plaza promises to be a hassle-free way to bask in the Cuban sunshine.

Los Van Van performs Sunday (June 3) at 3pm in Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $26 adv/$30 day of show. (408.928.5564 or 408.286.1315)

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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