Cuban Salsa Band, Los Van Van Plays Miami

In this Oct. 9, 1999 file photo, "Los Van Van," a Cuban band, performs at the Miami Arena in Miami. The presence of the band has angered the Cuban-American community in Miami. AP Photo

One by one, musicians from the renowned Cuban salsa band "Los Van Van" made their way past immigration officials at Miami International Airport and into the bright lights and cameras of the Spanish-language media.

One reporter offered them Cuban pastries. Another asked what it meant to play in Miami. Maintenance workers took pictures with their cell phones. One said she had grown up dancing to Los Van Van. Another denounced them as tools of the island's communist government. When they last played Miami 10 years ago, a mini-riot broke out between fans and protesters.

"I didn't come to do anything political," bassist Juan Formell said. "We came to play music."

Los Van Van are the latest in a string of Cuban bands to visit the United States under the Obama administration -- and the most controversial. Many characterize the group as having a cozy relationship with the Castro government, making them an emblem for conservative exiles of a five-decade long dictatorship.

Aside from Los Van Van, La Charanga Habanera and Buena Fe, a pop duo, each made recent appearances to sold-out crowds in Miami. The Septeto Nacional visited in November. Folk singer Carlos Varela met with politicians and sang in Washington. Legendary singer Omara Portuondo is scheduled to perform here in March.

Figures from the State Department show the number of visas issued to Cuban artists and athletes has inched up slightly since plummeting under the Bush administration. In the 2001 fiscal year, 860 such visas were granted; four years later, that number had dropped to 16. Last year, artist and athlete visas rose from 41 to 57.

"I think under Obama, we've seen that reversed a little bit," said Sujatha Fernandes, an assistant sociology professor at Queens College in New York City and author of "Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures."

"There's nothing formally written. But we've begun to see groups slowly being allowed to enter the country," said Fernandes.

As Los Van Van arrived in South Florida, signs of a changing Cuban-American community could be seen.

In late 1999, the band's performance was greeted by a protest more than 4,000 strong. Some threw garbage at concertgoers. A reporter was injured. People were led away in handcuffs.

The lead up to this past Sunday's concert in Miami was markedly different.

A billboard alongside one of the city's major highways pictured Los Van Van playing on stage. Cuban-American radio played Los Van Van's songs blending jazz, pop, and Cuban son -- a style of music that incorporates elements of traditional Spanish songs with African rhythms. Such an act would have been hardly imaginable a few short years ago.

And while a crowd of protesters did gather outside the concert, they were far outnumbered by those going to listen to the music. No items were thrown. No one was arrested.

For Cubans who grew up on the island, Los Van Van's music, with lyrics on everything from love to identity, represent the songs of their youth.

"They still want to be connected to their homeland," Hugo Cancio, president of Fuego Entertainment, a Miami production company, said of Cubans who have immigrated here over the last 15 years. "They understand that their culture and their music is untouchable. And they refuse to inherit the pain and suffering and hatred of the traditional historical exiles."

For more conservative exiles, Los Van Van are another extension of the Castro regime.

"Inviting 'Van Van' at this time is as though the U.S. would have authorized spokesmen for the South African apartheid regime to come to the United States to perform during the final stages of apartheid's grotesque existence," said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami.

As with many things Cuba, music is rarely seen as just notes on a page. Arturo Sandoval, the renown jazz musician who defected in 1990, has commented on how he was not allowed to play jazz because it was "music of the imperialists." Artists who have been blatantly critical of the regime, like Gorki Aguila of the punk group Porno para Ricardo, have been jailed and barred from performing on the island or having their songs played on the radio.

At the same time, the government has invested resources in educating musicians, building schools and conservatories, Fernandes notes. And some musical groups now sing openly about social ills on the island, like the Charanga Habanera song, "Super Turistica," which relates the story of a prostitute, a growing problem in Cuba.

Formell, Los Van Van's bassist, has often been quoted in Cuba's official press, including in August 2006, when Fidel Castro became gravely ill and transferred power to his brother, Raul. Formell wished "brother Fidel" a swift recovery and said it was a delicate moment, and necessary to prepare against the enemy.

Critics say that close relationship goes back to the group's founding. When Formell formed the group in 1969, the Castro regime was kicking of a campaign to produce 10 million tons of sugar. A popular slogan was "Los diez millones van," or "The 10 million go." Picking up on the phrase, the group was named "Los Van Van," basically, "The Go Gos."

The campaign failed but the band took off. They are widely considered the most significant salsa band to emerge from Cuba over the last four decades.

"I would say virtually every timba group owes an inspiration debt to Los Van Van," said Chris Johnson, a producer for radio station KXLU, home of the long standing Latin music program "Alma del Barrio" in Los Angeles.

Ninety miles across the Florida Straits, music hasn't escaped the throes of politics, either.

Cuban-American radio stations have avoided playing music from groups from the island in the past, but that has begun to change. About six months ago, Al Fuentes, programming director for Spanish Broadcasting Systems in Miami, began playing songs from Los Van Van and other Cuban artists on his morning show. He said the decision grew from demand for the music and his own curiosity about music made after 1959.

"People have been scared to offend parents, like my father," Fuentes said. "I think we need to realize there is a new generation that grew up in Cuba with that music, and the people that are here now make the decision."
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO
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