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Los Van Van

Reviewed on this page:
Los Van Van Vol I - Los Van Van Vol II - Los Van Van Vol III - Los Van Van Vol IV - Los Van Van Vol V - Los Van Van Vol VI - Báilalo Eh! Ah! - Qué Pista - Anda, Ven y Muévete - 25 Años... y seguimos ahí Vol I - La Habana Sí - Eso Que Anda - La Titimania - Songo - El Negro No Tiene Na' - Rico Son - De Cuba Los Van Van - Aqui... El Que Baila Gana - Esto Está Bueno - Bailando Mojao - Dancing Wet - Azúcar - Lo Ultimo En Vivo - ¡Ay Dios, Ampárame! - Live In America - Te Pone La Cabeza Mala - Llegó Van Van - En El Malecón De La Habana - Chapeando - Arrasando - Van Van 40

Formed in 1969, Los Van Van (Spanish for "The Go Gos") are the world's premier Latin dance band, masters of the "songo" rhythm they invented. Unafraid to experiment, they've added trombones, synthesizers and drum machines to their rhythm-and-violins charanga sound, and they occasionally use rock chord progressions and bass lines. They're not a fearsome collection of virtuoso players like NG La Banda, but bassist/founder Juan Formell is an ace composer/arranger of dance grooves, and even sneaks in a moving ballad from time to time. Like all Cuban bands, Los Van Van's records are hard to find in the US, and their discography is a nightmare, so I'm listing all the records I've got, including compilations - but if you're interested in where Cuban music has gone since the 1959 Revolution, you should snap up anything by these guys you can find. (DBW)


Juan Formell, bass, vocals; Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso, piano; José Quintana "Changuito", drums, timbales & other percussion (left early 90s); Pedro Calvo, vocals; Hugo Morejon, trombone and synthesizer; Manuel Labarrera, congas; Julio Noroña, guiro; Orlando Canto, flute; Alvaro Collado, trombone; Gerardo Miró, Fernando Leyva & Jesús Linares, violin; and many others over the years, including José Luis Cortés, flute; José Luis Martínez, vocals (first album only); Lázaro Morúa, vocals (fifth album only); Mario Rivera, vocals; Mario Valdes, vocals; Samuel Formell, drums; Pablo Cortés, bongos. Pedroso and Calvo left in the early 2000s.

Los Van Van Vol I (1969)
Upon first forming the band, leader Juan Formell stuck fairly close to the sound he'd used as musical director for Orquesta Revé (two tunes here, "Yuya Martínez" and "La Martes," are rerecordings of Revé songs). It's poorly-recorded 60s kitch, with the percussion far in the background and the flutes and strings unnecessarily strident. But even here, Formell's genius is apparent: he produced, arranged and wrote (except for the clever "La Bola De Humo") all the songs, and they're relentlessly interesting: the lively arrangement on "La Campana De Amor," the power chords (played by violins) on "El Penoso," the unveiling of his favorite chord progression on "La Compota." Formell's bass guitar style was already developed, spinning out propulsive lines (mixed further forward than Cuban ears were used to), and there's also some subdued electric guitar. (DBW)

Over the next several years, the band didn't release any albums (neither did anyone else in Cuba, far as I can tell) but they did cut some significant singles - "La Candela"; "Pero A Mi Manera"; "Y Que Se Sepa" - some of which were recorded for Vol II while others went uncollected until much later. (DBW)

Los Van Van Vol II (1974)
Yet another new version of "Yuya Martínez" shows how the band's sound has evolved since its debut: polyrhythmic percussion is front and center; the tempos are more deliberate than the frantic changüis of 1969. But it's no less exciting: track after track locks into an exhilarating groove. The best tracks are the hits "Chirrin, Chirrán" and "La Habana Joven," but everything's good, even the brief percussion-only numbers that open and close the disc. Compared with their later sound, this album downplays keyboards and special effects, using violins and the rhythm section more prominently, with hypnotic grooves, terrific basslines and tons of melodic hooks - the sound isn't modern, but it'll make you dance anyway. (DBW)

Los Van Van Vol III (1974)
The record leads off with the extended medley of Formell's "Llegué Llegué/Guararey De Pastorita," a perfect example of the group's blend of traditional melodies with modern instruments and a timeless swing and style. (A shorter version of this track is available on David Byrne's Cuba compilation Dancing With The Enemy.) Formell is seriously messing with the charanga configuration by now: the violins are almost unheard, organ and electric piano are featured for the first time, and many of the songs have an open jam feel with extended flute solos. Changuito's percussion experiments are highly effective, and Formell's bass has a bright, resonant tone - all together, this album sounds like nothing else the band ever did, and it's worth checking out. (DBW)

Los Van Van Vol IV (1976)
Formell returned to the fuller sound of the second release, and the band really hits its stride. (And singer Pedro Calvo coming aboard from Ritmo Oriental certainly didn't hurt.) "Dale Dos" is a masterpiece, tossed between ghostly electronic keyboards and muscular bass lines, with several tempo changes for good measure. The other hit here was "Te Traigo," a songo in the mold of many later successes. Other high points include the rollicking "Por Que Lo Haces" and the sly coda of "Si Mama Se Va." The band also succeeds with a couple of boleros. As usual, every track is written by Formell, and none of them are bad, although the weaker material sounds rather generic ("Una Vieja Tonada," "Mi Son Entero"). (DBW)

Here's one from the "I can't believe I never knew this" file: In 1978, Los Van Van contributed one track to the mostly live album Canciones XI, "Solidaridad Antiimperialista," and I guarantee you no other band could make such a cheerful, bouncy tune about such a topic.

Los Van Van Vol V (1979)
Formell's urge to experiment pushed him in unpopular directions this time. He recruited a wildly idiosyncratic lead singer, Lázaro Morúa, who sounds almost like a soul or R&B vocalist until he sails off into impromptu falsetto screeches. Actually, I rather like his approach, but be warned: it's like no other vocalist you've ever heard, and the loyal Van Van fans were disgusted. Plus, Formell relaxed his usual control over the group's sound, allowing other band members to write half the songs and even arrange several. The results are mixed: future NG La Banda leader José Luis Cortés contributes a songo that's disturbingly close to robotic disco ("TV A Color"), but César Pedroso comes up with the first of his many additions to the Van Van canon, and they're both excellent: "Tal Como Empezo" and "Con El Bate De Aluminio." The hit "Si A Una Mamita" was written by Evaristo Aparicio, whoever that is. Among all the weirdness, there are some wonderful moments: Formell's "Es Mucho" is classic songo, and Cortés' flute playing is spectacular throughout. Plus, if you give Morúa a chance, you may find his unique style growing on you the way it did on me. But don't count on it. (DBW)

Los Van Van Vol VI (1980)
Formell was quick to respond to the diminished success of the previous release: he fired Morúa and took back composing and arranging duties (Cortés did co-write and arrange one tune, "Francisco Y El Leon"). But he didn't stop experimenting; here he adds trombones, makes extensive use of electric guitar, and expands beyond songo to a variety of other rhythms: the hit "Un Montuno Sin Complicaciones" is a son montuno, and he also includes a danzón, a bolero, a chachachá, a guaguancó and two boleros. It sounds a bit desperate, as if Formell was hoping one style or another would capture the public's attention. Nothing did: the album was relatively unsuccessful. The tunes are okay, but there's nothing indispensable - only the devoted fan really needs this one. (DBW)

Báilalo ¡Eh! ¡Ah! (1982)
The 80s Van Van sound was born on this album, as Formell added a third trombone, and a synthesizer (used tastefullly). As with the previous album, he includes a number of different rhythms, but this time they're used effectively (their comeback hit "El Baile Del Buey Cansao" is a playful conga son, and appears in both slow and fast versions; "Hoy Que Quieres De Mi" is a pulse-pounding bolero; and "No Me Enganes Más" is a chasón - whatever that is - with driving percussion). (DBW)

Qué Pista (1983)
This is not the best place to start if you don't know the band; the hits ("Por Encima Del Nivel" also known as "Sandunguera," "Que Palo Es Ese") appear in better versions on Songo - here they're spoiled by cheesy electronic percussion (remember Synsonics drums?). The irritating comedy number "Dale Calabaza" is also one to skip. But the true vanvanero will get a lot out of the uncluttered sound and simple but effective vocal harmonies on "De 5 A 7," "Ay Mamá Recíbeme" and the title tune. (DBW)

Anda, Ven y Muévete (1984)
Opens with the classic "Anda, ven y muévete" later recorded by Rubén Blades under the title "Muévete" (using the same chords as the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil"). Things remain at a high pitch with the irresistable lament "Sera Que Se Acabó" and a fun song about urban overcrowding ("La Habana No Aguanta Mas"). Elsewhere, they bring jazzy touches to their standard sound, with an unaccompanied trombone solo on "Habla Claro Camara" and collective virtuosity on "El Danzonete." (DBW)

25 Años... y seguimos ahí! Vol I (released 1994)
Recorded from 1969 through 1984; a comprehensive introduction to their early sound, compiling a bunch of hits ("Por Encima Del Nivel," "El Baile Del Buey Cansao") plus rarely-heard oldies like "La Habana Joven," "Te Traigo" and "Si Una Mamita." Oddly, nothing is included from their excellent third album. Packaging of the compilation is good, with complete lyrics (nobody listens to Los Van Van for the words, but it's nice to have them, especially if you're like me and aren't fluent in Spanish). (DBW)

La Habana Sí (1985)
The band was treading water this time: the arrangements and subject matter follow the pattern of their previous work, without anything spectacular or breathtaking ("El Buena Gente," "La Resolución," "La Habana Sí"). The flip side is that there are no failed experiments, and tracks like "Se Muere La Tía" are profoundly satisfying in the band's usual style. Unlikely to be anyone's favorite or least favorite Van Van album. (DBW)

Los Van Van (rec. 1971-1985)
The catalog number, EGREM 2080, is the only way you can tell this compilation from the multitude of other self-titled Van Van albums. But unlike most collections of the group's hits, most of these recordings are otherwise unavailable single sides: the early hits "La Candela" and "Y Que Se Sepa" (original version), 1985's "Lo Que Te Dice Un Guajiro," and a couple of bolero B-sides which were later re-recorded in 1990: "Me Basta Con Pensar" and "Mis Dudas." (All thanks go to Kevin Moore for this info!) (DBW)

Eso Que Anda (1986)
There are a bunch of hellacious dance tracks here ("Canta La Ceiba, Baila La Palma Real," "No Es Facil (Que No Que No)," "Ya Tu Campana No Suena") and an uncharacteristically sweet love song ("Amiga Mia"), although cheap synth effects are occasionally distracting (title track). Mostly these songs have been overlooked in the host of compilation albums, making this a recommended purchase, particularly on a twofer with Al Son Del Caribe. (DBW)

La Titimania (1987)
The best songs here (the amazing "Que Lo Sepa Mama y Que Se Entere Papa" and "Calla," both by César Pedroso; "La Titimania") appear on various compilations. The other songs mostly cover familiar ground for the band; one exception is the Ruben Blades song "Tierra Dura." I found this on one CD with Eso Que Anda; I wouldn't spend too much to get it by itself. (DBW)

Songo (1988)
This was the album that should have established them with US audiences. Widely released on Mango, this album contains new versions of their best 80s material. The rerecordings are on top-notch equipment, but what really sets this disc apart is the quality of the performances: imaginative use of dynamics and a terrific keyboard solo livens up "Anda Ven Y Muévete," the addition of a slithery synth hook makes "Que Palo Es Ese" truly magical, and the band pounds out "Sandunguera" with a laidback virtuosity no other group could manage. Probably the best album to convert the uninitiated to vanvanismo. (DBW)

El Negro No Tiene Na' (1988)
The opening "Me Gusta Y No Puede Ser" is a wonder, with an insidious synth line; I don't know why it's missing from the various compilations. The other hits were the party-time title track and Pedro Calvo's sorrowful "Se Acabo De Querer." The album's perfectly professional, without obvious flaws, but most of it doesn't blow me away like so much of their work does. All the tracks are six to seven minutes long, and by the fifth minute or so they're repeating themselves. (DBW)

Rico Son (1989)
This was one of the prizes I brought back from my trip to Cuba in 1993; I've never seen this for sale in the United States. It's not the most essential Los Van Van LP, but it has one monster dance song with pointed lyrics ("No Soy De La Gran Escena"), the frantically swinging "Tranquilo Mota," a gentle celebration of the older generation ("Que Vivan Los Abuelos"), and two versions of the band's show-closing theme song ("Yo Sé Que Van Van") - as far as I know none of these songs appear on any compilation. Also contains "Artesanos De La Harina," which appears on Bailando Mojao and has a cute lyric concept, but for me is the least exciting track on the album. (DBW)

Aqui... El Que Baila Gana (1990)
Released on double LP: the original CD release was cut down to nine songs; look for the rerelease with all fourteen. The nine song version, which I'm more familiar with, was already one of their strongest efforts ever, with compelling music in a variety of styles: merengue ("Bailando Mojao" by Orquesta de Manzanillo leader Candido Fabré), lambada ("Solo Quería Bailar Lambada"), even their charanga-powered take on rap (the swaggering "Deja La Boberia" and the sinuous, laidback "Que Extraño Saxofon"). Naturally there are plenty of tunes in the group's hybrid songo style, and most of them are excellent: "Ahora Dime Si Me Quieres," "Me Basta Con Pensar," the title track, which was a TV theme song in Cuba. Even the weaker tracks have catchy melodies and effective arrangements ("Que No Me Mires Más Así" - an updated version of a song from Vol VI). (DBW)

Esto Está Bueno (released 1991)
This is a very good compilation of the mid-80s records; together with De Cuba Los Van Van you get most of the best songs from that period. (DBW)

De Cuba Los Van Van (released 1991)
This is a strange compilation unless you consider it as the B side of Esto Está Bueno, in which case it becomes a charming set of second-line tunes from the band's 80s catalog. (DBW)

Bailando Mojao - Dancing Wet (recorded 1984 to 1990, released 1993)
A strange selection of tracks: some undeniable hits ("Que Lo Sepa Mama," "El Negro No Tiene Na'") plus an assortment of hit-or-miss album cuts ("Resolución," title track). The only really new thing here is an extended live version of "Aqui El Que Baila Gana"; one nice surprise is the slammin' rap-songo "Deja La Boberia" that was dropped from the initial CD release of Aqui.... (DBW)

Azúcar (1993)
Very much in the mold of previous releases; the title song is another draught from the band's apparently inexhaustible supply of dance hits; the slower son "Que Le Den Candela" smolders; and trombones on "Esperando Llamada" recall Willie Colón. The brilliant final section of "Hasta Las Quantas" is unfortunately brief; live in concert they milk the groove for all it's worth. As usual, even the weaker tracks are solid efforts, if unmemorable. (DBW)

Lo Ultimo En Vivo (1994)
All new songs recorded live, and the band is so professional you get all the polished excellence of a studio recording, plus the excitement of a live show. The best songs here are amazing dance tracks: "Que Tiene Van Van," "Que Sorpresa," ""Mándalo Y Ven." Some of the ballads are too long ("Si Tú Te Vas") and at this point Juan Formell's son Samuel was still learning (his solo on "Un Socio" is dead air) but on most of the tracks the band locks into rock-solid, market-wise grooves. (DBW)

Lo Mejor De Cesar Pedroso (Cesar Pedroso: 1995)
Pedroso tested the waters for his solo career with a set of re-recordings of his best known Van Van hits - "Azúcar," "Tranquilo Mota," etc. - with a succession of guest vocalists. (DBW)

¡Ay Dios, Ampárame! (1996)
A routine outing. Everything's professional and smooth, and tunes like "Soy Todo" and "La Fruta" have that easy Van Van groove, but they're just repeating themselves ("Deja La Ira"). The only track that recaptures their kinetic magic is the santería-influenced "De La Habana A Matanzas." There are no bad tunes here, but it's still a disappointing showing for Latin America's premier dance band. (DBW)

Live In America (1997)
Recorded on the band's first tour of the States, and the set list includes big hits from the early days ("Chirrín Chirrán," "Guararey De Pastorita") through the 90s ("Ya Empezó La Fiesta"). It goes without saying that the band is ferociously together and the set list is awesome - the only problem is that since it was cut right after their least exciting album of the decade, there are lengthy versions of "Deja La Ira" and "Soy Todo" that aren't up to the level of the other tunes. (DBW)

Te Pone La Cabeza Mala (1997)
Stylistically, the band is coasting: from the rhythms to the tiniest arranging detail, there's nothing here you haven't heard them do before. They're in danger of becoming the Rolling Stones of songo. But most of the songwriting is excellent, and as long as they keep coming up with driving tunes like the title track, "Barrista Con El" (by Juan Formell's son Samuel) and "Qué Pasa Con Ella," they can keep doing the same schtick forever as far as I'm concerned. Not in the first rank of Van Van albums, with filler like "Lo Que Dejó Sebastián" (which sounds exactly like Dan Den's "Melón De Agua") and "Ella Tiene Algo Que No Sé," but a worthy addition to any fan's collection. (DBW)

Llegó Van Van (1999)
The group's 30th anniversary, and did you think they were going to do anything really different this time out? Neither did I, but it's still as good a nostalgia trip as you're likely to hear this year. Driving the point home, they even throw in a few references to traditional Caribbean song - the "donde yo nací" fade on "La Bomba Soy Yo," the quote from "Bruca Manigua" in "Somos Cubanos," the "Por Eso Ahora" refrain in "Consuelate Como Yo" - not to mention a look at their own back catalog on the opener "Permiso Que Llego Van Van." The production is flawless, combining all the band's usual elements - flutes, strings, trombones, some synth, interlocking bass and piano layers of percussion - into a coherent, compelling whole, though you might wish they'd left in a few rough edges. The biggest deviation from the formula is the extended jazz guitar solo on the closing "Havana City." The tunes are uniformly solid ("Mi Chocolate," "Eso Damelo A Mí"), though nothing here would crack the lineup of their greatest hits record (except maybe "Appapas Del Calabar"); lyrically it's another mix of lighthearted documentary of Cuban society ("El Cheque") and goodnatured boasting ("El Negro Esta Cocinando"). The last Van Van release to feature Pedro Calvo on vocals and César Pedroso on piano. (DBW)

De La Timba A Pogolotti (Cesar Pedroso: 2001)
With Changuito on percussion. (DBW)

Timba (Pupy Y Los Que Son, Son: 2001)

Vengo Con La Justicia (Pedro Calvo y La Justicia: 2002)
The first solo album from the longtime Van Van vocalist, including remakes of "El Negro Esta Cocinando" and "Que Le Den Candela." (DBW)

En El Malecón De La Habana (2003)
A live album, with mostly new material ("Tim-Pop Con Birdland," which livens up Joe Zawinul's fusion standard) and a couple of recent hits ("Soy Todo," which also appears on Live In America). I'm sure the people who love Ay Dios will love this too, and the band can still build up great momentum ("Que Cosas Tiene La Vida"), but for me it's a sterile rehash of their trademark style, with a bunch of songs that sound vaguely familiar ("Temba, Tumba Y Timba") but don't have memorable refrains or killer riffs. The tunes are particularly lacking in dynamics changes and unpredictable syncopation, which made tunes like "Mándalo Y Ven" and "Que Lo Sepa Mama" so unforgettable, though there are some nice arranging touches (the flute break on "Te Pone La Cabeza Mala"). There are a few lineup changes: Roberto Carlo Rodriguez is on piano, and vocalist Yeni Valdés adds sorely needed enthusiasm to her feature "Mi Mimi." (DBW)

Que Cosas Tiene La Vida (Cesar Pedroso: 2003)

De Aquí P'allá (Pedrito Calvo y La Justicia: 2004)
With Cándido Fabré's "El Negro Palmao" and a remake of "Aquí El Que Baila Gana." (DBW)

Pupy El Buena Gente (Cesar Pedroso: 2004)

Chapeando (2005)
After leading the band for thirty-five years, Formell has accumulated a ton of techniques, and he throws them all at the listener here. There's everything from electric guitar to synth to trombone, but at the same time strings are more audible here than on any record since the 70s. Recorded at Estudios Abdala in Havana, the album is also brighter sonically than any earlier effort. "Te Recordaremos" dips into sentimentality without going all the way to bathos. "El Montuno" tips its cap to traditional Cuban forms while remaining thoroughly modern. "Nada" (sung by Valdés) is the kind of slow-burning, smile-inducing track that no one but Van Van even attempts. Plenty of room is left for the band's trademark driving songo (title track), and if there were more outstanding compositions, this album would be right up there with El Que Baila Gana and Songo. While I wasn't looking, Samuel has matured, standing out on percussion as well as composing two of the better tunes, "Corazón" and the warp-speed (if a bit close to "Azúcar") "Agua." (DBW)

Mi Timba Cerrá (Cesar Pedroso: 2005)

¡Apúrate Bailador! (Pedro Calvo y La Justicia: 2006)

Live From Camagüey (2007)

Arrasando (2009)
Following in Fidel's footsteps, Formell seems finally to be thinking about retirement: he remains producer but his son Samuel is now musical director, and bass chores have been delegated to Pavel Molina. Otherwise, the band is mostly unchanged from Chapeando, and the "too much is never enough" musical approach is also similar: the title track is a bewildering blend of styles, breaks, false stops, strings, guitars, everything you can think of, while maintaining a coherent, compelling groove. And in addition to the four lead singers on the disc, Juan Formell's daughter Vanessa sings "Un Tumba'o Pa' Los Dos," one of three bonus tracks. Sharply arranged (funk guitar opposite a flute solo on "La Rumba No") and excitingly performed, and this time there are only a couple of forgettable tunes ("Si No Te Quieres Tú")... More often the compositions are moving (the songo power ballad "Este Amor Que Se Muere") and/or crammed full of crafty hooks ("Que No Te De Por Eso"; "Tú A Lo Tuyo, Yo A Lo Mío"). (DBW)

Van Van 40 (rec. 2009, rel. 2012)
A live DVD commemorating the band's fortieth anniversary, and - after the solo acoustic opener "A Través De Mis Canciones" - it's a scorcher. As you'd expect, the band serves up hits from throughout their career, but nothing's tossed off or absorbed into a medley: the band is in full-force dance mode not only on new material like "Arrasando" but old standbys like "Aquí El Que Baila Gana." Everyone is energized and enthusiastic, vocalists, players and audience alike. There are a bunch of special guests, both former members returning - Cortés adding superlative soloing to "Dale Dos"; Calvo delivering classics like "El Negro No Tiene Na'" - and stars like Omara Portuondo ("Tal Vez") and Alexander Abreu ("El Chan Chan"). We don't formally review DVDs but off the record, if you've read this far you should own this. (DBW)

La Maquinaria (2011)
Remakes of catalog material ("Eso Que Anda"; "Recibeme") with a few new tunes ("Yo No Le Temo A La Vida"); unfailingly pleasant but nothing to get excited about. As always, there are some choice unexpected touches - melodica on the title track; an Abreu solo on "Final" - and Valdés makes the most of her feature, "Un Año Despues." (DBW)

La Fantasía (2014)
The band's first release since the death of founder Juan Formell, and it's solidly entertaining in their classic style - largely grin-inducing uptempo fare ("La Moda"; "El Aparecido") with a few slower, more reflective numbers ("Todo Se Acabó"). In fact, the hazy, contemplative title track may be the mellowest thing they've done since "Llegué Llegué." Naturally, there isn't much tinkering with the formula, but there are some surprises: "Soy Añejo" grabs you from the jazzy piano intro right through its increasingly intricate groove; "Voy A Decirte Cosas" is a throwback with violins providing the main hook. There are some more pointless remakes, though: the 1990 recording of "Me Basta Con Pensar" (itself an update of a 70s B-side) is one of my all-time favorite tracks but the new version here doesn't add anything to it. As is becoming customary, Abreu adds a trumpet solo on the last tune, "Soy Van Van." I'm sure Samuel Formell has no thought of putting the band in mothballs, but if he did, this would be a nice note to go out on. (DBW)


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