Los Van Van still pushing the boundaries

Gabriel Wilder, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, looks at the long career trajectory of Cuba’s band Los Van Van.

The train, that’s what they call Los Van Van in Cuba. It’s an apt nickname: for 40 years, the band have been at the forefront of popular music on the island and they show no sign of slowing down.

Since their inception in 1969, they have regularly taken top honours in the country’s national music awards, but the band’s appeal is not confined to the Caribbean. In 1999 they won a Grammy award for their album Llego … Van Van and they spend about half of every year touring Europe and the Americas. Now “El tren” is bringing their winning formula to Australia for the second time.

It’s one that band leader Juan Formell has refined over decades. In 1968, he was musical director of one of the island’s most popular groups, the innovative Orquesta Reve, which married changui – a very old form of ”son” that predates even the venerable form purveyed by the Buena Vista Social Club – with strings to create a new sound. But at the time Formell was being heavily influenced by music from outside the island, especially the Beatles, and a year later he left to form his own group, Los Van Van.

“The Cuban dancers of that time weren’t dancing to Cuban music,” Formell told me in 2006. “They were dancing to groups from Europe and it occurred to me to make a kind of music that was Cuban – like Cuban son but with guitars and synthesisers.”

The result was a fusion of strawberry pop, swinging grooves and innovative Cuban rhythms that Formell called “songo”. Over the years the group’s sound continued to change as he added other elements that took his fancy to the mix: R&B, Brazilian music, Latin jazz and flamenco, to name a few. His son Samuell, the band’s drummer and co-director, says the secret to the band’s success lies in this eclectic approach.

“When you repeat the same thing, people say: ‘Oh, this song sounds like that one’ … You have to find a way to change it without losing the essence of Van Van.”

Changing a successful formula is always tricky but in 2001, Juan made one of the most radical decisions of his career: he added a female singer to the 15-piece line-up.

Samuell says his father chose Yenisel “Yeny” Valdes, who had been singing with the influential group NG la Banda, because he “had always loved her voice, her projection, her charisma … and having a woman would give us the opportunity to change the sound a little”.

Indeed, Valdes has a beguiling on-stage persona and delightfully sweet singing style that has brought a new dimension to the all-male vocal line-up consisting of two legends of Cuban music – the powerhouse Roberto “Guayacan” Hernandez and the soulful Mayito Rivera – and one relative newcomer (he joined just before Valdes), Abel “Lele” Rosales, who has a tougher, street style. But when Valdes was first introduced to the group, it seemed this was one risk that wouldn’t pay off for the Formells.

“A lot of people in Cuba didn’t agree with it,” Samuell says. “Van Van hadn’t had a female singer in 33 years and it was a big shock for our fans who are a little sexist. They couldn’t understand why there was a woman singing in Van Van … But over time, people began to accept her and today she is loved by the fans.”

“It was logical,” Valdes says of the initial hostility. “It was the price you have to pay for breaking the mould that was created by a band of 30 years. I even questioned the decision myself and asked the maestro if he was sure about what he was doing. But he asked me to trust him and I think not even six months had passed before [we] had a hit.”

Now it seems that Valdes herself is influencing others: Orquesta Reve, the band Juan Formell played with all those years ago, has brought in a young female singer whose style owes much to that of Valdes. She seems a little incredulous but also pleased by the idea.

“I haven’t seen her but people have told me about her. I don’t know if it’s true but if it is, it’s good, right?”

Los Van Van played at the Sydney Opera House tonight.

The story appeared at http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/los-van-van-still-pushing-the-boundaries-20100808-11q72.html

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