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Protect Me, Los Van Van

[whitespace] 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.

Juan Formell

And while Cubans were keeping an eye on cultural currents here, Americans missed the emergence of contemporary Cuban salsa as one of the hemisphere's most dynamic musical tongues. 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.

Promoter Danny Scher caught a Los Van Van show in Havana in 1995 and brought them to Shoreline Amphitheatre and the Fillmore shortly afterwards. Since then, the group has gained a growing following in the Bay Area. Once Los Van Van broke 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. Santa Cruz, of course, caught the Cuban bug several years ago; now, even clubs over the hill pack the house for imports like Cubanismo.

Los Van Van
Disciplined Dance: Founders of Cuban salsa, Los Van Van comes to the U.S. amid a Latin music sensation they started.

Los Van Van, though, not only kicked down doors here, it developed a sound that poured lighter fluid on the Cuban music scene. After seeing them at Havana's tourist nightclubs and Bay Area clubs and festivals, I saw them perform at the Tropical, an outdoor venue with a rough reputation in Havana's Kohly district. 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 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 fast 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?

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 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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