Most popular band in Cuba not necessarily best Cuban band
For at least the past decade, various labels have tried to get the Cuban dance band Los Van Van a break in the United States. These efforts have been stymied in large part by the ongoing trade embargo against Fidel Castro's dictatorship. But even when Los Van Van has gotten rare permission from the State Department to tour the United States, the band has failed to ignite a fire of enthusiasm among American audiences. This despite Los Van Van's long-standing status as the most popular dance band in Cuba itself.
Los Van Van's latest U.S. release is "Te Pone la Cabeza Mala" on Blue Note's Metro Blue subsidiary. While it's highly syncopated and energetic with top-rank musicianship all around, there is little truly distinctive about the album.
In fact, despite the American tendency to assume anything foreign is somehow more exotic, more legitimate, it's clear that Los Van Van fails to project the same levels of musical excitement as U.S.-based Cuban bands. Even the tourist-friendly Miami Sound Machine has a more hypnotic dance beat and, with the sexy Gloria Estefan out front, MSM has had far more success in gaining a reputation in Cuba (where they're banned for their anti-Castro politics) than Los Van Van has in getting a toehold in the U.S.
As in all things musical, though, eventually the whole gig comes down not to politics, but songwriting: Los Van Van simply doesn't write or select very interesting songs. With the same basic instrumentation as Oakland's Conjunto Céspedes (whose pro-Castro sentiments may well make them officially welcome in Havana) and equal virtuosity, Los Van Van simply can't touch their stateside brothers and sisters in salsa.
Unless and until they find better songs, Los Van Van is going to remain a cultural curiosity in the United States.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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