Visiting Cuba as a tourist you may still get the impression that Cuban music is mainly son or cha-cha-cha. Hopping from resort to Casa de la Trova and from Trinidad to Caya Coco, the evolution of Cuban music can go completely unnoticed.
But if you're lucky or walk the streets of Havana or any other Cuban city unguided and open your ears, you will hear other sounds. And if you're even luckier it won't be only (Puerto Rican or Cuban) reggaeton. Even today, there is still a chance you'll catch a shred of a timba track by Los Van Van.
Los Van Van ("The Go Go's") founded forty years ago (to be precise on December 4, 1969) by Juan Formell, who at the time was a leading member and composer in Elio Revé's Orquesta Revé, have played a crucial role in the evolution of the traditional son into the present-day timba genre. The main players within the orchestra were, besides Juan Formell (left in photo), percussionist/arranger José Luis Quintana a.k.a. Changuito and pianist/composer Cesar 'Pupy' Pedroso (right in photo). Both these great musicians have left Van Van since to go their own way.
I have no intention to write down the whole history of this essential Cuban orchestra. Instead I would like to refer you to this interview with Juan Formell from the Cuban newspaper Granma.
I first saw Los Van in the mid-1980s, and was very impressed by the tightness of their performance on stage. I was disappointed however by their studio recordings, which seemed rather sterile compared to the dynamics of their live act. When I saw them again in 1988, I remember several 'official' music critics commenting they should make a live recording. The album "Songo", released by Island Records a year later, was an attempt to capture the atmosphere of Van Van live.
I am not posting that record however. Instead I am posting a classic studio album, recorded in Cuba and released in 1985. And to give you an idea of their live performance, I would like to share some recordings I made myself during the WOMAD festival in July 1988. The quality of these recordings is perhaps not up to present-day standards (also because I was moving around a bit*), but I hope you'll get an idea of the 'ambiance'....
The lp "La Habana Si" is typical of the Van Van sound of the 1980s. It has a polished, modern sound with a focus on 'renovation', while making sure the Cuban reality is reflected in the lyrics (- making sure no one is offended, of course....). It features some classic Van Van tracks, like "La Resolucion", "Y No Me Explico Lo Que Tienes" and, of course, Pupy's great hit "El Buena Gente", which he has refurbished recently with his Los Que Son Son orchestra.
Live at the WOMAD festival at the South Hill Park in Bracknell Van Van played a selection of their greatest hits of the 1980s, with "La Titimania" (of which you can see this original video here), "Por Encima Del Nivel" (better known as "Sandunguera") and "Y Que Tu Crees". After all these years, and despite the sound quality, I can't help but preferring these recordings to the studio versions.....
Van Van - WOMAD 1988
* calling it dancing would be pretentious...
EDIT November 8, 2012: I've renewed the links.