Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Los Van Van 2.0 - Cuba's Rolling Stones Return to San Francisco

Friday August 14th, 2015, 8pm at Davies Symphony Hall. That's where anyone who loves Cuban music needs to be, and will be, when Los Van Van comes to town as part of SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. For those of us who have followed the decades-long trajectory of this musical institution, we all know this appearance will be different given the absence of founder-director Juan Formell, whose death last May stunned the island nation as well as music lovers around the globe. And while we lament the passing of a legend, we celebrate the transformation of this powerhouse ensemble as they continue to inspire and reinvent themselves under the stewardship of drummer/percussionist (and Juan's son), Samuel Formell.

The group's signature sound is an amalgam of traditional Cuban rhythms mixed with a tinge of American-infused pop and rock, but that feeble description in no way defines the relentless, hip-churning, sonic experience delivered by this band. Trombones and violins? Who DOES that? In the first incarnation of the ensemble, Formell dared to introduce that most American (aka "Imperialist") of sounds, the electric guitar. And to top it off, the drum set - typically not included in the Cuban dance music triumvirate of congas, timbales and bongos - was stripped of its cymbals at first so as to not incur the displeasure of government officials; any resemblance to jazz or rock could result in criminal prosecution, and Formell was well aware of the risks involved in assimilating anything remotely American. He called his new sound "songo" - a mix of Cuban son and "go-go" music, and what made it tick was precisely how much it flirted with rock or pop while remaining truly Cuban at heart. Over the years he added synthesizers, drum pads and other digital accessories, but the foundation of Los Van Van has always been the charanga orchestra, an acoustic instrumentation consisting of flute, strings and rhythm section with Cuban percussion.

Juan Formell receiving a Latin Grammy Award in 2013.
Like many popular rock bands - from the Dead and the Stones to any group with a fan base that spans nearly five decades - Los Van Van, founded in 1969, has seen its share of musical as well as historical transformation since the band first burst on Cuba's music scene. From the Cold War to the recent shift in US policy toward the island, Los Van Van has singlehandedly chronicled the daily lives of the Cuban people, their hopes, their dreams and aspirations, as well as their frustrations. Every song in the group's repertoire is punctuated with real-world situations, primarily penned by the late Formell in an enchanting recipe of groove-laden storytelling with multiple punches. It's not easy to think about getting down on the dance floor to songs about food shortages, transportation problems, blackouts or black market dealings, or more recently, prostitution, homophobia and drug addiction. But somehow, Los Van Van makes it work. They are, after all, El Tren (the train), an unrelenting wall of sound that has transcended generation in Cuban popular culture. Like a locomotive on steroids, this group has found a loyal following around the globe, regardless of political leanings, and if you climb on board this August 14th when they take the stage, you will witness firsthand how intoxicating it is to be a "Vanvanero" (or Vanvanera), a diehard fan. Davies may be a hall designed for symphony orchestra, but I guarantee it will feel more like a steamy Havana nightclub, so get your dancing shoes ready!

Read more on Los Van Van and the legacy of Juan Formell in Billboard Magazine.

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