With cries of "Viva Cuba," thousands packed Maritime Hall over two nights to greet the Cuban supergroup Los Van Van and savor a rare taste of Caribbean musical nirvana. (Their name translates as "The Go Go's" -- a phrase taken from a Castro-era political slogan, not the all-women group.) The appearance was a long-awaited victory over the U.S. State Department, which after many attempts finally approved their work visas for their debut American tour. It was also a cultural coup, as they gave the Bay Area one of the hottest Latin dance concerts ever.
The evening unfolded with Los Compas, a local Latin dance band who gave an enthusiastic performance of largely covers that ranged from '60s salsa to a variety of Western Hemisphere rhythms including cumbias and merengues. Despite their raw but feisty sound, Los Compas served largely as a backdrop for those filtering in searching for friends, seats, or potential dance partners.
Charged with anticipation, everybody was there to see what the big deal was all about. When the headlining 15-piece ensemble finally emerged and hit with "Ya Empezo la Fiesta" ("The Party Has Begun"), the place erupted with a roar. From the outset, Los Van Van grooved with an intensity so breathtakingly nuanced and controlled that the hall was instantly electrified. The resonant piano of Cesar Pedroso led the fray as the group kicked in with a songo, a rhythm innovated by Los Van Van in the '80s that fused North American rock 'n' roll and funk with the traditional Afro-Cuban son. Towering lead singer Pedro Calvo began pulling women up onstage, coaxing them to dance as the band rolled out their '80s world beat hit "Sandunguera."
Up front, bassist and bandleader Juan Formell smiled as he thumped out a hypnotic pulse that grounded the swirling polyrhythms. Originally based on a traditional charanga orchestra (whose main melodic instruments are flutes and violins), the lineup was modernized by Formell 27 years ago in Havana when he added trombones to give the group an extra punch. Talented components like pianist Pedroso ("Pupi") and percussionist Jose Luis Quintana ("Changuito") brought in modern ideas that gave the group a distinct ponche (rhythmic sense), where the accents don't fall on the first beat but roll into it, pulling you along.
The long, complex compositions were carefully crafted originals that left musicians in the audience gasping, dancers delighted, and "grunge-kid" onlookers bopping. This was not a crowd searching for deep lyrical meaning, and most of the songs were party tunes selected to suit them. An exception was "Ay Dios Amparame" ("God Shelter Me"), off Los Van Van's latest CD, which closed out the first set. The song affirmed what it meant to be Afro-Cuban, and to keep faith in the deities of Santeria. As it progressed, the lyrics became a metaphorical prayer asking for protection from misfortune. Vocalist Mario Rivera ("Mayito") pleaded for good things and virtues in his improvised verses as the crowd responded enthusiastically -- "AAmparame!" -- and waved their arms. "If I don't believe in you, who can I believe in?" Rivera lamented in Spanish, over an impassioned hip-hop beat.
During a short break, you couldn't help but notice the graying hair of half the band, most obvious among the trio of lead singers. A youthful den of young lions is replacing outgoing veterans. Calvo, who was decked out in a blue double-breasted blazer with black slacks and his trademark white campesino Panama hat, has been with the group 23 years and has a rasp to his voice. Yet his youthful counterparts sported street gear of jeans, flannel shirts, caps, and sneakers, and looked like they could have dropped in off of any street corner in urban America. Newcomers Rivera and Roberto Hernandez are amazing singers with distinctive, resonant voices who are integrating rap into a nouveau son mix.
Los Van Van picked up right where they left off for their closing set. "Muevete," a song popularized in this country by salsa singer Ruben Blades, brought a burst of acknowledgment, and as the crowd could no longer dance for their sheer number, they gravitated toward the front of the stage. Despite the density, there was very little pushing or shoving; people were polite. Next came a piece I was never able to identify: a stunning salute to the rumberos (noted street drummers), which made special mention of Chano Pozo, a pioneer of American jazz who added the conga drum to Dizzy Gillespie's big band in the late '40s. Young Samuel Formell (Juan's son) was set loose on the timbales here before Julio Norona blasted off on congas. While solos are integral to Los Van Van's music, they're never loose or open-ended, fitting precisely into the arrangement. After three hours of a sensuous, profound performance, Los Van Van finally started to wind down. As they walked offstage, cries for "AOtra!" ("More!") filled the hall before the ensemble returned with "Disco Azucar" as a 15-minute encore.
A great stateside debut, Los Van Van's performance was a long-awaited serenade by a creative dynasty of the highest caliber. Still unfettered by commercialism, their sole intent was to spin the crowd into a communal dance. Rumors flew that they will return in the summer for the Bill Graham Presents event "New Orleans by the Bay." Music of this quality should not be restricted by borders, and when it comes to the political rivalry between this country and Cuba, I say let Jesse Helms and Fidel Castro duke it out and get it over with. There's dancing to be done!