“We are… timba with rumba and rock, mambo with conga and pop.”
In a lyric to one of his songs, that’s how Juan Formell – one of the biggest musical names in Cuba — explains the multiple rhythms and beats played by Los Van Van, the powerhouse of contemporary music he has led for 35 years.
His music reflects the hectic and sensual rumble of Havana’s busy streets: the hum of traffic, lines of people in stores and markets, hustlers rushing after tourists, flocks of pedestrians flagging down drivers for rides, and men of all ages whistling come-ons called “piropos” to women passing by.
The polyrhythmic pulse of daily life in Cuba and the joys and pains of its people make for a good soundtrack. That isn’t lost on Formell, a composer and bassist who has kept up with the times, infusing the band’s music with modern touches of rap, hip-hop and timba, a fiery contemporary genre popular on the island.
The band will be featured in Eso que Anda, an award-winning documentary by Ian Padron to be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday during the Second annual Cuban Film Festival at St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 SE Main Street, Minneapolis
Admission is $7.
Los Van Van emerged on the scene in 1969, when Formell, pianist Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso and drummer Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana combined traditional Afro-Cuban son (the root of modern salsa) with soul, funk, pop and rock. They created a new rhythm called songo that has captivated audiences on the island and worldwide, an army of “vanvaneros.”
Formell later added Puerto Rican, Colombian, African and other influences to his songs. His musicians call Cubans to party.
“Dance now and forget your troubles,” they sing. “Enjoy yourself.”
That’s not always an easy proposition in the island nation where a common refrain is “life isn’t easy,” especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former benefactor.
Through good times and bad, Los Van Van has been an ensemble of traveling musical ambassadors for Cuba, especially in Europe, where the band has many fans. Despite the five-decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba and various periods in which Cuban musicians have been barred from the United States, the group also has toured here, receiving warm welcomes in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
The band’s visits to Miami, the city with the second largest Cuban population outside of Havana, have been less successful. I’ll never forget the 1999 concert that drew a hostile reception from hardline members of the Cuban exile community.
Some 70 police officers ringed the Miami Arena that night, many of them in riot gear. More than 3,500 protestors taunted concert-goers, yelling “Communists! Traitors! Prostitutes!” Some threw eggs and soft drink cans as people went inside.
On its latest visit to Miami, in January, the band returned for a show that had minimal protests. But some Cuban Americans still consider the group the “official” band of the island’s communist government, a charge Formell denies.
“We don’t do politics,” he repeatedly has said. “We make music.”
The band also makes fans, so many that it has changed popular music in Latin America and elsewhere. Its longevity owes both to Formell’s willingness to change direction and his adherence to strong musicianship.
Much like the African-American funk bands of the 1970s, Los Van Van delivers musical suites. Formell’s tunes are tales of the street and of ordinary life, often employing the Cuban propensity for double entendre. A song about a man in a fruit store is really about his pursuit of a woman.
Even in Cuba, there is social commentary. “You say you want to be king,” the lyric of another song goes. “Show me your crown.” Who the singer is talking about is left to the listener’s interpretation.
Though still Cuba’s biggest contemporary band, Los Van Van doesn’t command the attention it once had on the island.
Anyone walking down a Havana street these days is just as likely to hear hip-hop or reggaeton — the fusion of Jamaican dancehall, rap and Puerto Rican slang that has soared in popularity.
Formell knows the market is tough.
“Its’ very complicated,” he said during a press conference in Havana a few years ago. “There are a lot of young people making music. This is a big competition.”
But even though the new genres with their simpler beats and catchy phrases are easier to dance to, people on the island still love to dance salsa and timba. The dancers still respond to the singer’s call to get down with Los Van Van.