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Legendary 'Los Van Van' Band Celebrates 50th Anniversary Amidst US-Cuba Tensions

Credit Niall Macaulay
Los Van Van on stage May 30, 2019 at Studio 60.

The Grammy-winning Cuban band Los Van Van celebrated their 50th anniversary last month at Miami’s Studio 60 club with a sold-out show. One of the island’s most popular post-revolutionary salsa ensembles kept the crowd dancing into the early hours under sparkling disco balls.

But now fans in Miami are wondering whether they’ll ever be able to see the band play again.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration imposed new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. It’s also set to become much harder for international artists to enter the country, after the State Department added “extreme vetting” requirements for artists traveling to the U.S., including musicians from Cuba. And last week, the Miami City Commission went a step further, voting to ask Congress to allow them to ban Cuban performers and artists from the city.

“We have had an absolute golden age of cultural exchange since the years of [President Barack] Obama opening to Cuba – now it is cut off,” says Ned Sublette, an American author, ethnomusicologist and music producer. “We are embargoing ourselves from Cuban music.”

Los Van Van – the name literally means “they go-go” – was founded by Juan Formell in December 1969. The group has always been innovative: they pioneered the “songo” style, building off Afro-Cuban music and incorporating rhythms and harmonies from rock and roll and jazz. They’re credited with pushing Cuban music forward, experimenting with hip hop and disco, and they were the first Cuban group to use synthesizers and drum machines.

“These lyrics tell you what it is like to be in Cuba. They talk to Cubans,” Sublette says. “They tell you what it is like to stand in line waiting for bread. They tell what it’s like to have a daughter getting married and have to produce a wedding fiesta. They tell you what it is like to deal with bureaucracy and, most of all, they tell you what it is like to let some steam off, dancing.”

When Los Van Van performed at the Miami Arena in 1999, thousands of Cuban exiles angrily demonstrated against what they considered a musical group loyal to the island’s communist dictator, the late Fidel Castro. Police in riot gear had to lead many of them away in handcuffs.

“It was one of the concerts with the most tension, the most problems,” says Samuel Formell, the son of Juan Formell, who played with his father at the 1999 show. “Many Cubans that live here don’t want us to come play here.”

Credit Niall Macaulay
Samuel Formell, the son of Los Van Van founder Juan Formell, on stage May 30 at Studio 60 in Miami.

Vocalist Pedro Calvo remembers that the band simply “did [their] job.”

“The ones that wanted to enjoy entered the arena, danced, jumped and everything,” says Calvo. “We respect everyone’s opinion.”

Jacob Edgar, music researcher for Putumayo World Music and President of the Cumbancha record label, says Los Van Van has been a particular target of anti-Castro political activism “simply because they are the country’s most successful and internationally celebrated band.”

“They have been known and popular for many years, and during some of the most tumultuous years of the Cuban Revolution,” he says. “I find it disappointing that people would protest a band whose sole mission is to make people feel good.”

When Los Van Van returned to Miami on January 31, 2010 to perform at the James L. Knight Center, they arrived to a less hostile reception. President Barack Obama had already started to encourage cultural connections with Cuba. Obama would go on to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015.

Miami-based Cuban filmmaker Joe Cardona says the 2010 concert was a musical breakthrough.

“I think it was groundbreaking in a way. It unveiled the great mystery: what would happen if Los Van Van performed? It happened. I think we are all the better for it,” says Cardona. “I still haven’t seen Willy Chirino, Albita Rodríguez or Gloria Estefan play in Havana. I patiently wait for that day.”

Today’s version of Los Van Van features three children of the band’s late founder: leader and drummer/timbalero Samuel Formell; bassist Juan-Carlos Formell and the family’s youngest daughter, lead vocalist Vanessa Formell. Samuel naturally progressed to become the band leader, taking the helm after his father Juan died in 2014.

The band has an enthusiastic following in Miami – and beyond.

“I’m a Van Vanera since the 60s, even though I have been here for 39 years, I have followed them,” says Nancy Calderon, who was at last month’s concert. “I have all their records and every time I can, I have gone to see them wherever they have played.”

Like many Cubans, Cardona says he hopes it remains that way.

“I hope one day this conversation is null and void and doesn’t mean much of anything,” Cardona says. “I hope that Cubans on and off the island are able to play and sing and share films and other art and any other experience with one another without the heavy cost or weight of the politics.”