Review: Los Van Van at the Conga Room
Urgent memo to the Department of Homeland Security: Los Van Van, the brilliant Cuban dance band that tore up the Conga Room on Thursday night, poses a clear and present danger to the U.S. capitalist system.
Not because the ensemble and its roughly 70-year-old leader, Juan Formell, represent any actual threat that would justify the absurd delays the group has endured in trying to obtain U.S. travel visas over the past few months.
No, the real menace is that anyone witnessing Los Van Van perform live, as they've been doing since the late 1960s, will be swept up in a sweaty rhythmic euphoria, potentially causing them to miss work the next day and thereby undermining the free-market way of life.
On Thursday night, not even Kennedy-era red tape, and a somewhat gnarly sound mix that occasionally smothered the band's charanga-style string and keyboard players, could prevent Los Van Van from working its spell.
A floor-jamming crowd of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians and Angelenos of all flavors came together for a show of comradely, eroticized musicianship, triggering a giant dance party that roared on late into the night. Some of those present may be dancing still.
Los Van Van's longevity derives from Formell's relentless and cunning innovations as a composer and orchestral arranger. Over successive decades, he has painted drum machines and synthesizers into a dance-scape that gives pride of place to its brass section and jangling piano, thereby fashioning a funkier, hook-laden version of traditional Cuban son that Formell has dubbed songo.
Seventeen members strong in Thursday's L.A. incarnation, the band strung together extended versions of about a dozen of its hits, leading off with “Chapeando” and a smoking rendition of “Me Mantengo,” fronted by a charismatic quartet of singers: Mayito (Mario Rivera), El Lele (Abdel Rasalps), Yeni (Yenisel Valdes) and Roberton (Roberto Hernandez Acea).
Although their lyrical dexterity would make any listener assume the singers are improvising, much of the wordplay and scatting is as tightly scripted as the band's meticulous instrumentation. Formell, a relaxed and benign onstage presence, is a ruthless comandante when it comes to maintaining aesthetic discipline and somehow making it feel totally loose and organic — the essence of Cuba's musical genius.
Elder statesman Formell also lent his voice as backup to the proceedings, but mostly he focused on conducting the players, a superb group that included Roberto Carlos on piano and trombonists Alvaro Collado, Hugo Morejon and Edmundo Pina.
Here's hoping that Formell and his compatriots find their next U.S. tour less impeded by political posturing. Pleasure, joy and sensuality do not a foreign policy make, but they could be a great warm-up.
-- Reed Johnson
Photo: Roberto Hernandez Acea, a.k.a. Roberton of the band Los Van Van, performs at the Conga Room. Credit: Eddie Sakaki / The Conga Room