Los Van Van’s visit signals thaw in U.S.-Cuba cultural relations

When legendary Cuban group Los Van Van played Miami in October 1999, about 3,000 angry anti-Castro Cuban American exiles pelted fans with eggs, soda cans and rocks.

In 2001, the Latin Grammy Awards did a last-minute shift from Miami to Los Angeles to avoid any similar uproar over Cuban nominees like Los Van Van, who’ve been supportive of Fidel Castro’s communist government.

The scene is likely to be far more tranquil when Los Van Van appear Thursday and Friday evening at the Conga Room in downtown L.A. — except on the stage and the dance floor. That’s where the controlled frenzy that is a Los Van Van concert hasn’t calmed down in more than 40 years.

Almost indisputably the most influential of post-revolutionary Cuban ensembles, Los Van Van also are among the island nation’s most adaptable, helping them to survive nearly as long as brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Led by its 68-year-old founder and bassist Juan Formell, the group layered brass, vocals, electric guitars and, later, drum machines and synthesizers over a traditional violin- and flute-driven charanga superstructure. Although still sometimes labeled a " salsa” band by neophytes, Los Van Van’s music — especially as performed live, often in extended jams, sometimes accompanied by dancers — is better understood as a continuous series of flowing suites that merge jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, disco and free-form call-and-response choruses.


This week’s gig marks Los Van Van’s first L.A. appearance since a sold-out June 2003 show at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. In a brief phone interview from his home in Havana, Formell, speaking in Spanish, said that the group had been scheduled to perform last year at the Hollywood Bowl but was unable to obtain a U.S. visa. Like many artists from Cuba, Iran and other countries on bad terms with the U.S. State Department, Los Van Van found themselves shut out of the United States during the latter years of the Bush administration.

“It’s much better with Obama,” Formell said. “It’s been almost 10 years that we haven’t been given a visa. Practically no cultural exchanges occurred.”

That’s been changing recently on both sides of the Straits of Florida. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra visited Havana last October, and Cuban stars such as pianist Chucho Valdés and Omara Portuondo recently have performed in the United States.

Brad Gluckstein, the Conga Room’s owner, said that when Los Van Van played at his club’s former Wilshire Boulevard venue a decade ago, the event was part of brief diplomatic thaw that coincided with renewed interest in Cuban music sparked by the Buena Vista Social Club.

“When we opened we were the West Coast hub for every Cuban band that came in,” Gluckstein said. “It was really a fabulous period, and then it all stopped.”

Now, with cultural relations easing between the two countries and a younger generation ascending as taste-makers, Formell thinks it’s a good time for the band whose name translates as “those they go, they go.”

“There are a lot of youth [in the United States], the same in Cuba, that the politics doesn’t much interest them,” he said.