Cuba’s band Los Van Van preparing for US tour

Reuters reports that Grammy-winning Cuban band Los Van Van will celebrate 40 years of salsa revolution with a long-awaited return to the United States in January. Often called the ‘Rolling Stones of salsa,’ the group will perform in Key West, Florida on January 28, ending a long absence from the United States caused by tense U.S.-Cuban relations during the administration of President George W. Bush. Los Van Van, a cult band credited with reinventing salsa time and again since their debut in 1969, will be the latest group of Cuban artists to benefit from a quiet resumption of cultural exchanges under current U.S. President Barack Obama.

Well-known Cuban musicians are being granted visas to perform at U.S. venues, a sign that Obama’s administration is promoting cultural contacts as part of a strategy of warmer “people to people” ties with the Communist-run island.

Los Van Van’s Key West show prefaces a 70-concert U.S. tour starting in April.

Band leader and bassist Juan Formell hopes the tour will exorcise memories of one of the group’s last U.S. appearances –a 1999 show in Miami where U.S. anti-riot police had to keep angry Cuban exile protesters from harassing concert-goers.

Formell has reshaped the traditional sound of salsa by adding electric guitars, synthesizers and violins to Los Van Van. He went further by mixing son, jazz, afro rhythms and even a bit of The Beatles to create what is called “songo,” Cuba’s version of salsa. “We have had lots of detractors. They said we were not doing Cuban music. But time went on and we managed to win people over,” he said. But the secret to remaining famous for decades, Formell says, is to write music that makes people dance. “I realized people didn’t show gratitude by applauding but by dancing.”

A new documentary film, Eso que anda, by director Ian Padrón, follows the band as they perform across Cuba. “Cubans love Los Van Van. They are the country’s most famous orchestra. For us, they’re the equivalent of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones,” says Padrón, who was not yet born when the band was created but calls himself a “vanvanero”. The recent premier of the film brought together several generations of musicians who starred in the band over four decades.

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