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Los Van Van

Saturday, April 27, 2002 — the evening

That night I waited at the café to see if Anna was going to Van Van. A table of tres lindas cubanas that had been at the rumba invited me to sit with them. One looked about nineteen, another early thirties, and the third was in her sixties, and they were all beautiful, classic Cuban faces. They flirted with me mercilessly. The grandmother called me an hombre fuerte and El Gallo. The prettiest one, the thirty-something mulatta named Clarice asked if there was room in my suitcase for her. I told them, "Look, this probably sounds crazy to you, but I want to come and live here." Clarice pointed to the apartment building across the street, and said, "I live right over there, you can come live with me!" The abuela said, "No, no, he has to come live with me!" ¡Ay, Cuba!

Anna was a no-show, so I walked over to the taxi stand by the Hotel Cohiba and got another one of those goofy Coco motorcycle taxis to the Macumba. I didn't realize that the Macumba was about ten miles out of town. Halfway there, a carload of Cubans asked if we were going to la Macumba, and a young chica named Lisa climbed into the taxi and handed me $25 for the cover charge. Apparently, unescorted females are not allowed into La Macumba, an attempt to keep the place from being overrun with jineteras, but the policy doesn't seem to work, because there was no shortage of single girls there that night.

Cuban women are amazing. You could have cast the entire Victoria's Secret catalog just by picking the cream of the crop at la Macumba, and it would be an improvement. ¡Que linda!

I tried to go backstage to greet some of the Vanvaneros, but a guard stopped me. I bluffed, saying I was a friend of Roberto's. In reality, I had spoken with him briefly at the Casa De La Musica two years ago, and again at the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego. The guard said they hadn't arrived yet, but twenty minutes later, he came and found me, and Roberto greeted me like a long lost family member. I sat with his wife (or girlfriend? not sure) during the show. Van Van in Habana lived up to my expectations, even with the recent new additions and changes in the band. Roberto "Cucurucho" Carlos has the difficult job of replacing original pianist César "Pupy" Pedroso, but he does it well, and in his own style. After all, no one plays quite like Pupy—he has his own thing. I'm not quite sure why Formell felt the need to replace Pedrito Calvo with two vocalists. Lele and Yeni are good, but not outstanding by any means, and having four lead singers cuts down on the number of tunes that Roberto and Mayito do. As far as I'm concerned, they could just have those two guys singing lead. But this is nitpicking. A lot of people in Habana told me they didn't like the new lineup, and criticized Formell, but no one thought that Samuel would ever be able to replace Changuito, and no one liked Mayito at first either. Van Van has been through a zillion changes in the last thirty years, and they keep on going. Why should this be any different?

They played a lot of tunes that night that I'd never heard them play in the States: they did a medley of older hits going all the way back to Chirán, Chirán, and an amazing live version of Somos Cubanos that was awe-inspiring in its intensity. And hearing Mayito sing Soy Todo live is always a religious experience.

Juan FormellI moved closer to the stage to get a photo of Formell, and saw Lázaro Valdéz of Bamboleo at the side of the stage. We compared our relative weight gain since we had last seen each other a year and a half ago, and decided that I won—soy más gordo que él. He introduced me to Orlando Lázaro Mengual, the conguero of Charanga Habanera. It turns out that he is very good friends with Luis Eric, the amazing Cuban trumpetista that plays with Mamborama every time we can get him. Small world. Anna's piano teacher, Roberto Carcasses, is good friends with Jimmy Branly. Orlando knows Jimmy and Coky Garcia too, so in the space of a few minutes, I had a new friend. If you've never been to Cuba, you have no idea of how open and friendly the musicians are to musicians from abroad. It’s amazing. Here in the States, musicians are mostly rude and competitive with each other.

Just two nights into the trip, and I had already heard NG and Van Van. This was shaping up to be a good one.

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Los Van Van live in Havana. This is a new tune, Sol Natural.

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Changó, by Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba

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with Lázaro Valdéz
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