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Jan 30, 2015 2:31 PM

Cuba's Los Van Van on the go, coming to once-hostile Miami

The Associated Press

MIAMI BEACH, Florida (AP) Los Van Van, one of Cuba's greatest dance bands, once made history of a sort just by playing in Miami, overcoming city attempts to ban the concert and braving thousands of enraged protesters to put on a concert in the heart of anti-Castro activism.

Now the group is returning to a different, less polarized Miami as part of its fifth U.S. tour, just as the Obama administration is easing a half-century of restrictions on Cuba, making travel to and from the island easier.

"Times have changed a lot," said Samuel Formell, the group's leader, during an interview with The Associated Press.

Formell's father, Juan, created an exciting new style of Cuban dance music that has influenced generations of musicians, even as he was widely reviled among Cuban exiles who saw him as close to the Communist government and circulated videos showing him shouting "Viva Fidel!" Both Fidel and Raul Castro sent floral offerings to his funeral when he died last year at age 71.

Anti-Castro exiles and city officials battled to keep the group from performing in Miami in 1999.

Then-Mayor Joe Carollo referred to the group as "the official Communist band of Fidel Castro" and some 4,000 anti-Castro activists turned out to protest their appearance, hurling eggs, batteries and insults at concert-goers.

That atmosphere has eased as the generation torn from Cuba for political reasons has gradually been joined by children and grandchildren curious about the island, and by new waves of Cuban immigrants who have come for economic rather than ideological reasons.

Things have changed for Los Van Van as well.

The group's new leader said Cuba needs "an urgent change, an urgent change to save that country."

The first change, he said, should be fully ending the U.S. embargo. And after that, he'd like to see changes that the Castros have vowed never to make: "that there could one day be another party, that there could finally be free elections and whoever wins the elections stays.

"That things open a little more, that there is freedom of the press too, and of communications in general ... all those things that work normally in the world and are not normal in Cuba."

Still, he said the band has never been about ideology.

"Juan Formell worked to make music. He never got into politics," the son said.

"I don't think we'll make political lyrics, something that speaks of tensions ... We'll continue being the same: Van Van to enjoy."

The 47-year-old percussionist said his father's inspiration remains strong, nothing that he authored several of the songs on the group's new album, "La Fantasia."

"What we want," he said, "is for the music of Los Van Van and of my father to reach places it's never reached."


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