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Irony on the High Seas 

Can Cesar Ascarrunz and Los Van Van, swimming in contradictions, turn the Cuban ideological ferment into the dance of the century?

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
Before last weekend's raid on the home of Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives, the latest news off the Elian Ticker had a government pediatrician saying the boy's relatives were psychologically abusing him, and may drive him bonkers. No doubt. Looking at Elian's beautiful cousin-guardian Marisleysis Gonzalez, we suffer the kind of cognitive dissonance that's the stuff of frontal lobotomies. On the one hand, our Marisleysis-seeing minds tell us, "These are whacked-in-the-head fanatics holding an orphaned child hostage." On the other hand they tell us, well, "Damn, Marisleysis is hot."

And so it is with everything relating to Cuba, an island that's spent the last century as a surrealist's paradise, a jumble of contradictions, and refuge of luxuriant disjoint between this world and a million imagined ones. The labyrinth of subtexts and absurdities that characterize the Elian standoff provide a window into this Joya del Caribe world, best viewed through Cubans' own unique penchant for smiling at the absurd. As chance would have it, San Franciscans have a opportunity to experience this sensibility firsthand at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. San Francisco's maestro of the surreal, its newly minted city parking commissioner, ex-renegade-nightclub impresario, and perennial mayoral candidate Cesar Ascarrunz is bringing Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular band, to San Francisco for what he has billed El Baile del Siglo.

"It's going to really be the dance of the century," Ascarrunz says. "That's assuming their plane doesn't crash first."

If there were ever proof that life flows most freely through affectionate, ironic detachment, Los Van Van is it. For 30 years they have been Cuba's all-in-one version of the Beatles, Miles Davis, and Bruce Springsteen, with perhaps a light dash of Tom Lehrer tossed in for effect. Bandleader Juan Formell has remained for all that time what would seem an impossible combination -- the most authoritative, and one of the most innovative voices in Cuban music. The Los Van Van sound has been described as charanga funk, songo, timba, big-band son, salsa, whatever -- it's a brassy, pulsating tropical dance beat peppered with subtle, at times mildly subversive happy-talk lyrics. The refrain "Havana crazy -- welcome to the capital," sung in heavily accented English (about a city that's actually clogged with the idle unemployed), or the words "Havana defends its religion because it's our reason for existing," shouted at the end of the song "Soy Todo" (from a country presumed to be devoutly Communist), are typical examples.

In the past year or so, the 15-piece ensemble has gone from big to huge, following the success of Wim Wenders' Academy Award-nominated documentary Buena Vista Social Club, and the fandom for all things Cuban that's ensued. In February, Los Van Van won a Grammy in the salsa category for their disc Llego Van Van, which appropriately translates as "Van Van Has Arrived." The group awoke from a round of L.A. post-Grammy parties to see their reputed $50,000-per-concert fee nearly double. Since then, they've been touring the globe to promote the record, and build awareness in advance of high-paying European gigs.

"It's worth our while because we're able to sell a lot of records," says Los Van Van drummer Samuel Formell, Juan's brother, during a phone interview from his home in Havana. "And the European shows, that's what really pays." Still, Los Van Van are reviled in Miami as the Official Voice of communism by Marisleysis' Cuban exile cohorts. Miami's Cuban-American mayor has denounced Los Van Van as minstrels of communism, and last October a Los Van Van concert in Miami nearly sparked a riot. The promoter is now suing the city of Miami for the $39,000 police guard needed to keep 4,000 of Marisleysis' ilk from storming the gates in protest. Los Van Van's debut U.S. tour, in 1997, came to San Francisco, but not Miami, for fear of provoking just such a disturbance.

But there's the Cuban surrealist rub. If Los Van Van's cancelled visit to San Francisco a few weeks ago was any guide, these minstrels of communism may be among the most capital-minded musicians in the business. Just ask Kari Moe, a flack for, which hired the group for its reputed quarter-million-dollar launch party Feb. 7. "The idea was to have a very high energy level, where it could be very positive music. That's why we chose Los Van Van," says Moe. "We never really got a very clear explanation of why they cancelled."

As it turns out, Los Van Van appear to have packed their calendar with so many lucrative gigs following their Feb. 23 Grammy win that they couldn't keep to their schedule. "Things weren't coordinated very well," explains Formell. "We had another commitment in Cancun. There just wasn't time."

Impresario Cesar Ascarrunz would seem the ideal man to host a band so seemingly incongruous as Los Van Van. The concert marks Ascarrunz's return to the Latin music business after retiring in 1997. For years, Ascarrunz was San Francisco's greatest salsa impresario, hosting prominent acts at his Cesar's Latin Palace, a cavernous dance hall decorated with glitter balls and neon signs. His club was known for its music, and it was also known as one of the few places where one could buy alcohol after 2 a.m., when city rules require establishments to stop selling booze. Police shut him down several times for this bit of beneficence.

But Ascarrunz is best known to San Franciscans for his perennial, expensive, audacious, and ultimately futile runs for mayor of San Francisco. He's run three times, and claims to have spent around $50,000 on each such adventure, driving a loudspeaker-equipped pickup truck around the Mission blaring salsa music and parading neon-lit "Ascarrunz for Mayor" signs. Following his defeat in the first electoral round last fall, Ascarrunz distributed fliers supporting Mayor Willie Brown. Two months ago, Brown unexpectedly named Ascarrunz parking commissioner.

During the 1999 campaign, Ascarrunz promised that, if elected, he would use money spent on wasteful government projects to build a giant downtown palladium, where he would hold huge concerts. He had to abandon the idea of becoming mayor, but not of promoting concerts. If successful, Saturday's event could presage a Bill Graham-esque top-drawer concert promoting career -- to hear Ascarrunz tell it. Sharing the bill with Los Van Van are Grupo Mania from Puerto Rico and La India from New York.

"It will be the mother of all concerts," Ascarrunz says.

Mother or no, El Baile del Siglo will certainly be a pleasant, slightly surreal experience. Los Van Van's symphony of congas, timbales, horns, violins, and flutes produces a texture both melancholy and joyful -- kind of like a walk along the Malecón, the oceanside avenue that curves around downtown Havana. You can see foreign tourists lounging by the pool at Mayer Lansky's old hotel, the Riviera, now touted by the government as a five-star businessman's special. The boulevard itself is filled with dozens of shirtless men and sun-dressed women holding rolling, flirty conversations as they bicycle toward their destinations. Across from the ocean are the dozens of beautiful, if crumbling, Victorians along old Havana. At night, on the ocean side, there are dozens of beautiful, if forlorn, prostitutes who begin assembling around the Malecón and the tourist hotels during the early afternoon.

It was there that guitar prodigy Juan Formell began playing with Elio Reve's orquesta, a charanga band whose music was characterized by flutes, violins, piano, string bass, and percussion. As music director and bassist, Formell added electric guitar and emphasized his now characteristic bass beat. The group was renamed Changui in 1968, and in 1969, when Cuba was still living the euphoria following the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he renamed the group Los Van Van. The group's style fused ritual Afro-Cuban rhythms with American-style pop overtones to create sort of a funk version of salsa. During the ensuing 30 years, the band has existed as an ever-evolving intergenerational musical academy, with young musicians signing on to riff off the beats laid down by old-timers of Formell's generation.

Meanwhile, Castro's Soviet-sponsored paradise flowered, collapsed, then persevered during the impoverished "special period" that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Los Van Van remained the country's greatest supergroup as Cuba went from being an exporter of revolution to an importer of sex tourists; from a crucible of the New Socialist Man to a place whose mineral rights are owned by Canadian capitalist conglomerates, its hotels run by Spanish tourism conglomerates, and its de facto currency minted by Uncle Sam. All the while, Los Van Van's music has remained vital -- by creating new types of beautiful bass-paced rhythms, nudgingly ironic lyrics, and a live show that's consistently electrifying. Los Van Van's thunderous brass section, the impeccable, throbbing bass lines, and endless crescendos are known to whip crowds into a sweaty, epileptic, and surreal frenzy. "It's an explosive atmosphere, it's an atmosphere where everybody's very alive, fascinated, with lots and lots of love. A Los Van Van concert is intense -- everyone participates," says Samuel Formell.

And what about Marisleysis, Uncle Lazaro, and the 4,000 anti-Van Van protesters who manned the barricades around little Elian? "Those are people who've been left in the past," he says. "All we do is make music, music for people to put down their arms. We're not about politics. We're just playing Cuban rhythms that have been around for centuries."

Cesar's Productions presenta El Baile del Siglo, con Los Van Van, La India, Grupo Mania, y La Internacional Sonora Show, Sabado, el 29 del Abril, a las 7:30 p.m. en el Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove (con Polk), S.F. Entrada es $45-50; llame al 821-1156.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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