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A Tempest of Success

Juan Formell has kept Los Van Van at the forefront of Cuban music for more than 30 years, but a deal gone bad with a U.S. label raises doubts about the band's future.

January 13, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | Times Staff Writer

It's been five years since the first U.S.tour by Los Van Van, the vanguard of dance bands in Cuba for three decades. To fans who followed its once-banned music like a cult, the group's arrival on these shores during the winter of 1996-97 felt monumental, like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The legendary group swept through Yanqui territory in a six-city blitz, including New York and Los Angeles, offering performances so electrifying that fans still buzz about them today. Hard-core devotees hopped planes to catch the nearest shows by the fun, funky and influential Afro-Cuban orchestra, founded in 1969 by composer and arranger Juan Formell.

The thrill of that triumphant tour was heightened by the political and social breakthrough it represented. For decades, Van Van and other popular Cuban bands had been barred from performing in the U.S. by this country's economic embargo of the socialist island.

Thanks to the Clinton administration, a new policy toward cultural exchanges further loosened the old Cold War barriers that had already started to erode. Van Van's heady, early success raised hopes that doors would finally open for other progressive Cuban bands, known for much more challenging and sophisticated music than the formulaic salsa coming from New York and Miami.

Van Van, whose previous albums were sold in the U.S. as imports or released by small independent labels, made another breakthrough by signing its first long-term recording contract with a company outside of Cuba, where the record industry is government controlled. Its new label, New York-based Havana Caliente, had a distribution deal with powerhouse Atlantic Records.

After playing to a delirious reception at the 1997 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, flutist and founding member Gerardo Miro said, "We hugged and kissed each other because we knew we had finally arrived. Our feeling was, 'We're finally in the market! Now let's see what happens.'"

What happened next nobody could have predicted.

Van Van's foray into the U.S. market became mired in setbacks. The band's music was all but boycotted by Latin radio programmers for political reasons. In addition, the progressive band was blindsided by the sudden craze in this country for old-style Cuban ensembles such as the Buena Vista Social Club, an outfit as different from Van Van as Dixieland is from Miles Davis.

Worse, for nearly two years Van Van has been locked in a dispute with Havana Caliente and its owner, a Cuban American businesswoman named Maria Zenoz. The conflict is almost as complex as U.S-Cuba relations, but the result is that Los Van Van has not been back in the studio in three years, much longer than fans are used to. To top it off, several members have left the band in the last year.

Although he has survived defections before, Formell is now the last of Van Van's original key lineup, and his band faces a future more ambiguous than ever. Instead of expanding their horizons, Van Van and other contemporary Cuban bands have retrenched on the island, especially following the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to tour cancellations in the U.S.

The story of Juan Formell and Los Van Van reflects the passion and purpose that for almost a century have fueled popular Cuban music, a genre whose worldwide influence outstrips its commercial strength. Yet, the band's struggles for wider U.S. acceptance also highlight the obstacles facing the island's promising new music, which has taken much stronger hold in countries such as Spain, England and Italy with normal trade ties with Cuba.

Van Van may have missed its golden opportunity for a breakthrough in this prized market, a setback that might have demoralized other bandleaders approaching their golden years. But while Formell may falter, his persistence keeps alive the prospect that more people in this country may yet come to appreciate modern Afro-Cuban music, which bewitches fans once it finds them.

In an interview by phone from his home in Havana, Formell, 59, says his health is good and he sees a reinvigorated future for Van Van--including two new albums on the way, one live and one studio recording with 12 new songs.

"The band is better than ever, according to the public here in Cuba," he says in his melodic, rapid-fire Cuban Spanish. "We have new musicians who are very young but better prepared, and who work under my direction with enormous enthusiasm.... Van Van has a new sound, a much more professional sound than it had before."

Although skeptics are now counting Van Van out, die-hard vanvaneros--as followers of the band are known--realize that it's never a good gamble to underestimate Formell.

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