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Barrier Relief: Pedro 'Pedrito' Calvo, Roberto Hernandez and Mario 'Mayito' Rivera turned up the heat at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz last year.

Protect Me, Los Van Van

The kings of salsa come to town riding a wave of Cuban music they helped birth

Article and photographs by Dan Pulcrano

WHEN GOING through a bin of old vinyl upstairs at the house of a friend in Santa Clara, Cuba, I came across an old Los Van Van LP from the 1970s. Presently chrome-domed Pedro "Pedrito" Calvo had a 'fro the size of today's party wigs, and Juan Formell had the determined look of a young bandleader, one preparing to launch a revolution in his country's traditional music by melding its African and European roots with rock and jazz influences that had percolated down from that big Yanqui beast to the north. And while the Cubans were keeping an eye on cultural currents up here, Americans missed the emergence of contemporary Cuban salsa as one of the hemisphere's most dynamic forms of musical expression. Luckily, the eroding Berlin Wall that separates U.S. citizens from 12 million of their closest neighbors has become increasingly porous the past four years.

Juan Formell

In other words, music has succeeded where politics has failed. While Washington wants enemies in Kosovo, Rwanda, Timor and Jerusalem to kiss and make up, it just can't manage to lead by example.

Since former Bill Graham Presents principal Danny Scher spotted Los Van Van at Havana's posh Tropicana venue in April 1995 and brought them to Shoreline and the Fillmore, the group has gained a growing following in the Bay Area. Once Los Van Van smashed through the blockade, others followed, and now Cuban music is hotter than a Havana summer night, riding the double wave of a media- and sex symbol-fueled Latin music explosion and growing interest in Cuba fed by tens of thousands of U.S. journalists, licensed travelers and illegal expeditioners who yearly travel to the island. And while lefty outposts like San Francisco and Santa Cruz caught the Cuban bug first, San Jose's the Usual recently packed the house for the group Cubanismo.

Los Van Van

Los Van Van has been a pioneer, both in kicking down the doors and in developing a sound that has poured lighter fluid on the Cuban music scene. After seeing them at Havana's tourist nightclubs and Bay Area clubs and festivals, I caught the group at the Tropical, an outdoor venue in Havana's Kohly district that's much grittier than its similarly named cousin. There, drinking foamy beer out of square, waxed, brown cardboard cups, I watched as the three lead singers got down on their knees and threw their hands to the sky while performing an extended version of "¡Ay Dios, Ampárame!" The song, which asks God for protection, is as close to a political statement as the government-sanctioned band will come in a nation which doesn't suffer political dissent gladly. Dense was the emotion in the steamy air as the band was down with the home crowd, bonding in the pain that's anesthetized when Los Van Van plays court jesters to the rich.


Thursday in the world's capital of easy money, the band follows legendary Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés at Saratoga's idyllic Mountain Winery, where ripening white wine grapes are kissed by the dry California sun. Friday they do the same opening the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Saturday they come to Palookaville. Hey, we need a little protection too, no?

Los Van Van plays Sept. 16 at 7:30pm at the Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Rd, Saratoga. Chucho Valdes opens. Tickets are $26-$36. Call 408.961.5858.

Other Los Van Van Resources:

    Band in the USA: Metro Santa Cruz's 1997 cover story on Los Van Van and Cuban music.

    Los Van Van: AfroCuba Web's page devoted to the band.

Los Van Van Video Clips
Tropical Club, Havana
December 18

MPEG video clips from Los Van Van's perfomance at the Tropical club in Havana, December 18., shot by Dan Pulcrano with a Sony Mavica.
© 1998-99 Metro Publishing Inc.

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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