By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
From the first note of the piano and the clang of the cow bell, thousands of hips start to gyrate and the party begins on Havana’s Malecon ocean front.
Cuba’s popular salsa band, Los Van Van, has been playing for 35 years and they are still the hottest dance number in town, drawing 5,000 people of all ages to an open-air birthday bash.
As the rum flows, couples spin around to the fast-paced steps of timba, Cuba’s frenetic polyrhythmic version of salsa that makes its New York counterpart look formulaic.
“E, e, Pastorita tiene guararey (Pastorita is sexy),” chants a festive crowd energized by the driving voice of Mayito Rivera, lead singer of the group considered the Rolling Stones of salsa.
“This is the rhythm Cubans love. You can’t have a party without Van Van,” says Marta, a 25-year-old cafe worker, offering a sip of Havana Club.
Like Communist-run Cuba’s political leadership, Los Van Van is getting old. But founder Juan Formell has constantly turned to new blood to keep the band playing cutting-edge salsa.
At 62, Formell is suffering from diabetes and has trouble playing the bass for more than a few songs. His son Samuel, the group’s drummer, stands in as bandleader when Juan leaves stage.
“I can die in peace,” Formell said. “The band is ready to go on playing for a good while, whether I’m around or not.”
The only other founding member still with the band is trombone player Edmundo Pina. The rest of the Grammy-winning 15-member ensemble are young professional musicians who joined in recent years, such as Yeni Valdes, the band’s first female vocalist.
For one song, the younger musicians stepped aside at the birthday concert to let the old timers take over the stage for a reunion performance of their 1970s hit “Sandunguera.”
It was Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana back on kettledrums, Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso on the piano and, wearing a bright red suit and gold ear-rings, the band’s best lead singer Pedrito Calvo.
REVOLUTION IN THE REVOLUTION
Formell set off a musical revolution within Fidel Castro’s revolution when he founded Los Van Van in 1969. A born innovator, he broke away from the traditional “charanga” orchestra of Elio Reve, and the musicians followed him.
It was a heady time of experimenting in Cuban music, as the island nation moved toward socialism.
Los Van Van (The Go Go) took their name from a slogan used by the government to mobilize Cubans to cut sugar cane and produce 10 million tons of sugar in the 1970 harvest.
Formell added electric guitars, keyboards and drums to the traditional Cuban “son.” He joined violins and congas, and mixed in elements of American jazz and British pop with the underlying Afro-Cuban percussion.
The result was a rich sound called “songo” and an instant hit.
Over the decades salsa music has boomed, spreading worldwide from its origins in New York’s Latino community. The Cubans kept innovating their style, while maintaining a distinct sound, now called timba, a fusion that includes elements of reggae and rap.
Formell sees timba as the hard rock of salsa.
“New York salsa is soft, ours is hard, with the emphasis on the last note of the four-by-four beat,” he said. “Cuban dancers need that power. If you play light salsa, they can’t feel it, they won’t dance,” he said.
Foreign audiences love the infectious sound too. Formell’s band won the 2000 Grammy award for best salsa performance with “Llegó Van Van ... Van Van is here.”
The band’s appearances in the United States have been marred by the political hostility of anti-Castro exiles in Florida and the U.S. government, which sees them as emissaries of a communist state that it wants to isolate.
Their Miami debut in 1999 drew 2,000 protesters who shouted slogans and hurled eggs and other objects at concert-goers, forcing riot police to escort people from the show at the Miami Arena.
Last year, the Bush administration denied entry visas for Formell and other acclaimed Cuban musicians nominated for Latin Grammys who were barred from attending the awards ceremony in Miami.
For Young Cubans, even those frustrated with their run-down socialist society, Los Van Van strikes a very different chord, their pride in being Cuban.
“This band inspires us and lets us release tensions caused by economic hardship,” said Evelyn, who quit her $10-per-month job as social worker and never misses a free concert by Los Van Van.
“In spite of the U.S. blockade, we have salsa, and joy, and the hope that things will improve one day,” she said.