Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.
By Jack Tomas
One of the biggest challenges for any band is trying to stay current. It’s not an easy thing to do. Musical styles and tastes change and you have to try and keep up. Rarer still is a band who consistently releases new and interesting stuff that manages to push the envelope. One band in Cuba has managed to do that for over 40 years, the great Los Van Van.
Los Van Van was formed by band leader Juan Formell in the 1960’s. After the revolution, Cuban music split in two. Many artists like Celia Cruz and Perez Prado decided to leave Cuba while other stayed behind. This created two parallel musical evolutions that still influenced each other, but were on slightly different paths. Los Van Van proved right away that they were unique. As salsa was developing here in the U.S., Los Van Van developed their own modern dance music called songo. The main innovator of this style was their genius drummer Changuito who took an American style drum kit and fused it with Cuban timbales and congas. The rhythm is slower than salsa and more complex. It owes more to the earlier rumba influences than the son. The resulting sound is hypnotic.
Los Van Van became huge worldwide in the 70’s, touring all over the world including occasional gigs in the U.S. In the 80’s, they incorporated synthesizers and drum machines pushing their music into a contemporary pop vibe. Over the last two decades, they’ve added hip hop elements too. Today, with an altered line-up of course, they are still going strong. That’s the one thing about Los Van Van, they are hard to define. You can’t pigeonhole them to only one style or a single era. That is precisely why they are still relevant.