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Feeling the Heat With Los Van Van

ASSORTED NOTES | JAZZ

June 16, 1997|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The circular stage at the Playboy Jazz Festival makes its rotation, the rhythm kicks in, and master of ceremonies Bill Cosby shouts, "Los Van Van!" and the Hollywood Bowl erupts in a roar of enthusiasm.

It's Saturday night at the Playboy Jazz Festival, and the legendary Cuban dance band is making its Bowl debut. But it is only the beginning of an evening of Latin rhythmic excitement that will see Los Van Van cut a swath of vigorous, colorful energy across the Southland.

Universally considered to be Cuba's finest dance band, Los Van Van, in fact, combines improvisation and dance music in a seamless, compelling mix of rhythmic exhilaration, rich with a blend of traditional Cuban forms and contemporary sounds.

"Oh, man, this band is unbelievable," says Susie Hanson, a violinist and the leader of her own popular Latin ensemble.

Unable to contain her enthusiasm as the music shifts into high gear, Hanson jumps up and down, waves her arms, and finally lets off steam by digging two fingers into her mouth and emitting a loud, exuberant series of enthusiastic whistles.

Her animation is matched on all sides. In a nearby box, a woman is rolling her hips in sync with the surging of the conga drums. A few boxes behind her, a tall, studious-looking man--the very image of stiffness--finds it impossible to resist the Van Van rhythms, slowly working past his embarrassment to move with the music.

Toward the front of the Bowl, the low wall that separates the box seats from the circle of luxury seats directly under the stage is mounted--first by a few hardy enthusiasts, then by a full-fledged swarm of people. Like a musical variation on the storming of the Berlin Wall, the Van Van fans stand shoulder to shoulder, bodies swaying and rocking with the music. Here and there, groups of four and five do their own personal choreography, improvising spontaneous ensemble movements.

Los Van Van's three lead singers, led by the charismatic Pedro Calvo, stroll the stage like rock performers, urging the audience to join in by clapping their hands: "Ayudame! Ayudame!" they shout. The crowd responds, joining in the rhythm.

And, instead of the familiar Bowl conga lines, a kind of mass dancing-in-the-aisles begins to take place, with the entire front section of the Bowl filled with frolicking devotees.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in the 19 years of the festival," said Playboy Jazz Festival President Dick Rosenzweig after the performance. "We've had some enthusiastic crowds--for Kenny G, for one--but never with this kind of sheer joy and participation in the music."

*

An amazing accomplishment for a band that is largely unknown to the audience, singing in a language largely unspoken.

Two hours later, an entirely different crowd is waiting for Los Van Van to perform in an completely dissimilar, but--for the band--a far more familiar environment.

In the wide open reaches of the jampacked Palladium, a well-dressed crowd is beginning to fill the dance floor. On the outer edges of the room, and on the circular balcony, $100 tables are attracting groups of VIPs.

The audio system booms out current Latin hits as the crowd waits, filled with a buzz of anticipation, already moving with the heavy, pounding beat of the rhythm.

Near the stage, a very tall blond is so buoyant with energy that she dances simultaneously with two friends, both shorter than she, salsaing with one while doing a variation on the Lambada with the other. Another young woman moves with such sheer sensuality that she is soon surrounded by a crowd of eager-eyed, tropical-suited young men.

Then, suddenly, Los Van Van hits the stage to begin a three-hour set, which ends about 2 a.m. And their performance at the Bowl, for all its remarkable qualities, begins to pale. Playing in their natural environment--a concert/dance venue--before a crowd that knows and loves their music, the band comes alive.

Although the power of their sound was amply present in the Bowl, here in the Palladium it becomes a palpable force, an almost physical presence that envelops the room with irresistible, propulsive rhythms.

The floor becomes jammed with dancers. Every age, every color is present. Latinos, whites, Asians--and probably a substantial portion of the Southland's Cuban community. Hordes of young women in skimpy black cocktail dresses and fashionably clunky high heels. Slick-haired men, many looking like escapees from the cast of "Miami Vice." Older couples, neither their age nor their girth preventing them from moving with the rhythm that Los Van Van bandleader Juan Formell describes as songo--a contemporary variation on son, the most important musical form in Cuban song and dance.

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