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Los Van Van at Davies Symphony Hall

Harry S. Pariser By

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Los Van Van
Davies Symphony Hall
SFJAZZ Festival
San Francisco, CA
August 14, 2015

Cheers erupted as Randall Kline, Founder and Co-Executive Director of SFJAZZ, began to introduce the evening's entertainment. Cheers from more than two thousand audience members overpowered Kline as the musicians came onstage, eleven in total, and took their places—the roar forcing him to pause until the ocean of sound subsided.

Since its inception in 1969, Los Van Van has remained the top Cuban band in the timba genre, a musical form that combines rock, funk, pop and jazz with folkloric (rumba, guaguancó, changüi) and religious (Regla de Ochá) forms to meld a uniquely enticing sound. Although bassist Juan Formell passed away in 2014, the powerhouse unit continues to tour the planet as a tribute to its founder.

Los Van Van has not been able to tour the United States frequently for many reasons, as relations with the Cuban government have long been stymied by the embargo, hampering cultural exchange between the two nations. The band was not able to perform in the U.S. until 1996. This evening, they appeared in San Francisco's spacious Davies Symphony Hall. This appearance came auspiciously on the same day the American flag was raised at the reopened American Embassy in Havana.

The barricada of sound heated up as the musicians began playing and the four powerful, commanding vocalists entered to the roars of the crowd. After the first tune, sung by Armando "Mandy" Ihosvany Cantero Abreu, physically imposing vocalist Roberto "Robertón" Hernandez Acea, a black cap perched on his head, ran through a list of Latin American nations and was rewarded with loud cheers from each fan group in the hall. Founder Juan Formell was also eloquently eulogized.

Following the signature hit "Sandunguera," the audience really went wild. An enthusiastic crowd of timberos and timberas, already gathered at the front and sides of the stage, danced with abandon. One woman standing in the aisle on the first tier danced wildly, waving her hat. From the stage, Robertón leaned forward to shake hands with longtime fans.

While Robertón was highlighted on the classic tunes "Llegó Van Van" and "Ven Ven Ven," the other lead singers also had their place in the sun. The wildly popular Yenisel "Yeni" Valdes Fuentes, the only female member the band has ever had, shook her long curly tresses and swayed as her hands formed exclamation points for her vocals. She spoke fondly of founder Formell. Vocalist Abdel Rasalps Sotolongo also took the lead.

Later, hands waved in the air as Robertón invited a woman onstage to dance with him. Towards the end he called the band and egged on the audience to new heights of enthusiasm. The flute added punctuation, the trombones were superb, the violins added romance and the congas provided body, all of it anchored at center stage by the drumming of the band's current director, Alfonso Samuel Formell. His brother, Juan-Carlos Formell, replaces his father on bass. The band left the stage but then, to the delight of the ecstatic audience, returned to play two final hard hitting, infectious dance tunes.

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