Irony on the High Seas

Can Cesar Ascarrunz and Los Van Van, swimming in contradictions, turn the Cuban ideological ferment into the dance of the century?

Before last weekend's raid on the home of Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives, the latest news off the Elian Ticker had a government pediatrician saying the boy's relatives were psychologically abusinghim, and may drive him bonkers. No doubt. Looking at Elian's beautiful cousin-guardian Marisleysis Gonzalez, we suffer the kind of cognitive dissonance that's the stuff of frontal lobotomies. On the one hand, our Marisleysis-seeing minds tell us, "These are whacked-in-the-head fanatics holding an orphaned child hostage." On the other hand they tell us, well, "Damn, Marisleysis is hot."

And so it is with everything relating to Cuba, an island that's spent the last century as a surrealist's paradise, a jumble of contradictions, and refuge of luxuriant disjoint between this world and a million imagined ones. The labyrinth of subtexts and absurdities that characterize the Elian standoff provide a window into this Joya del Caribe world, best viewed through Cubans' own unique penchant for smiling at the absurd. As chance would have it, San Franciscans have a opportunity to experience this sensibility firsthand at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. San Francisco's maestro of the surreal, its newly minted city parking commissioner, ex-renegade-nightclub impresario, and perennial mayoral candidate Cesar Ascarrunz is bringing Los Van Van, Cuba's most popular band, to San Francisco for what he has billed El Baile del Siglo.

"It's going to really be the dance of the century," Ascarrunz says. "That's assuming their plane doesn't crash first."

Los Van Van, beloved by most everyone, except those who'd make them yet another political football.
Matt Smith
Los Van Van, beloved by most everyone, except those who'd make them yet another political football.
Marisleysis Gonzalez and her ilk are "left in the past," says Los Van Van's Samuel Formell.
Matt Smith
Marisleysis Gonzalez and her ilk are "left in the past," says Los Van Van's Samuel Formell.

Details

con Los Van Van, La India, Grupo Mania, y La Internacional Sonora Show, Sabado, el 29 del Abril, a las 7:30 p.m. en el Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove (con Polk), S.F. Entrada es $45-50; llame al 821-1156

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If there were ever proof that life flows most freely through affectionate, ironic detachment, Los Van Van is it. For 30 years they have been Cuba's all-in-one version of the Beatles, Miles Davis, and Bruce Springsteen, with perhaps a light dash of Tom Lehrer tossed in for effect. Bandleader Juan Formell has remained for all that time what would seem an impossible combination -- the most authoritative, and one of the most innovative voices in Cuban music. The Los Van Van sound has been described as charanga funk, songo, timba, big-band son, salsa, whatever -- it's a brassy, pulsating tropical dance beat peppered with subtle, at times mildly subversive happy-talk lyrics. The refrain "Havana crazy -- welcome to the capital," sung in heavily accented English (about a city that's actually clogged with the idle unemployed), or the words "Havana defends its religion because it's our reason for existing," shouted at the end of the song "Soy Todo" (from a country presumed to be devoutly Communist), are typical examples.

In the past year or so, the 15-piece ensemble has gone from big to huge, following the success of Wim Wenders' Academy Award-nominated documentary Buena Vista Social Club, and the fandom for all things Cuban that's ensued. In February, Los Van Van won a Grammy in the salsa category for their disc Llego Van Van, which appropriately translates as "Van Van Has Arrived." The group awoke from a round of L.A. post-Grammy parties to see their reputed $50,000-per-concert fee nearly double. Since then, they've been touring the globe to promote the record, and build awareness in advance of high-paying European gigs.

"It's worth our while because we're able to sell a lot of records," says Los Van Van drummer Samuel Formell, Juan's brother, during a phone interview from his home in Havana. "And the European shows, that's what really pays." Still, Los Van Van are reviled in Miami as the Official Voice of communism by Marisleysis' Cuban exile cohorts. Miami's Cuban-American mayor has denounced Los Van Van as minstrels of communism, and last October a Los Van Van concert in Miami nearly sparked a riot. The promoter is now suing the city of Miami for the $39,000 police guard needed to keep 4,000 of Marisleysis' ilk from storming the gates in protest. Los Van Van's debut U.S. tour, in 1997, came to San Francisco, but not Miami, for fear of provoking just such a disturbance.

But there's the Cuban surrealist rub. If Los Van Van's cancelled visit to San Francisco a few weeks ago was any guide, these minstrels of communism may be among the most capital-minded musicians in the business. Just ask Kari Moe, a flack for Salesforce.com, which hired the group for its reputed quarter-million-dollar launch party Feb. 7. "The idea was to have a very high energy level, where it could be very positive music. That's why we chose Los Van Van," says Moe. "We never really got a very clear explanation of why they cancelled."

As it turns out, Los Van Van appear to have packed their calendar with so many lucrative gigs following their Feb. 23 Grammy win that they couldn't keep to their schedule. "Things weren't coordinated very well," explains Formell. "We had another commitment in Cancun. There just wasn't time."

Impresario Cesar Ascarrunz would seem the ideal man to host a band so seemingly incongruous as Los Van Van. The concert marks Ascarrunz's return to the Latin music business after retiring in 1997. For years, Ascarrunz was San Francisco's greatest salsa impresario, hosting prominent acts at his Cesar's Latin Palace, a cavernous dance hall decorated with glitter balls and neon signs. His club was known for its music, and it was also known as one of the few places where one could buy alcohol after 2 a.m., when city rules require establishments to stop selling booze. Police shut him down several times for this bit of beneficence.

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