By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
Sunday night will be a real test as to whether South Florida's public can separate politics from art. One of Cuba's most legendary groups, Los Van Van, comes to town for a performance at the James L. Knight Center. It'll be the group's first appearance in the States in more than ten years, after having been kept at bay by the junior President Bush's policies. The musicians were finally able to obtain a visa this year thanks to the Obama administration.
Fans, meanwhile, just adore them as one of the most important forces in the development of Cuban music. To put Los Van Van into musical perspective, the group just celebrated its 40th anniversary in December. It is to Cuba what El Gran Combo is to Puerto Rico, and Juan Formell is their Rafael Ithier.
Formell formed the group in 1969, striking out on his own after leaving Changui, for which he was also musical director. He was only 29 and would lay the foundation for what would become a quintessential Cuban sound. He began with a standard charanga lineup, using the son-heavy orchestra format as the basis for the group. But he revamped it, adding a brass section to the traditional flute, legato strings, vocals, and rhythm section. He also added a drum kit as well as previously unused electronic instruments.
The group frapped influences ranging from son to funk to Afro-Cuban to disco in this newly souped-up blender that was Los Van Van. In the process, Formell and company, along with Ikare (with whom Arturo Sandoval played in the early part of his career), pioneered a subgenre of salsa known today as timba.
But the group had musical detractors from the early days. "They said we were not doing Cuban music," Formell told Reuters. "But time went on, and we managed to win people over."
The group even flirted with jazz, rock, and hip-hop. This in turn led to the creation of another genre altogether, of which Los Van Van is credited as being the sole proponent. This style became known as songo, and it is considered by some to represent the heart of timba. Using as the song's heartbeat a foot pattern on the bass drum known as tumbao, songo is more about a feeling than actual arrangement.
But regardless of what you call the style, anyone who's ever witnessed Los Van Van's dominance of the stage — be it on video or in person — can attest to the group's raw energy and talent.