Los Van Van
One of Cuba’s best known and most durable music groups, Los Van Van, is currently touring Australia. They have played in Adelaide and Melbourne and on Friday night, they play here in Sydney at the Enmore Theatre.
Led by their founder, Juan Formell, the group has been around since 1969. But unlike others, Los Van Van has been able to reinvent themselves every so often and in the process, win plenty of new fans over the world with their combination of traditional Cuban salsa and pop.
I suspect, however, that few of those fans who will fork out $85 to see Los Van Van play in Sydney will know much about their history - or what they represent.
Like most Cubans who grew up in the 1960s, every time I think Mr Formell and his group I think of Fidel Castro and his wacky, ill-fated grand schemes to “fix” once and for all the Cuban economy, going back to the early days of the Revolution. I have written about this before in this blog and in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba.
You see, the name Los Van Van refers directly to a slogan used by the regime in 1969-1970 when Castro came up with this crazy (and inevitably doomed) plan to extract 10 million tonnes of sugar from that year’s sugarcane harvest, as opposed to the usual seven or eight million. This, he argued, would allow Cuba to cover the entire world in sugar and make the country very, very rich.
So, for months, the country went nuts.
Everyone in Cuba regardless of age or responsibility, was told to leave their jobs and go out to the countryside to cut sugarcane for the Revolution. Nothing else mattered. Schools closed. Hospitals and shops and factories, too. Christmas was cancelled.
This was a battle we must win, Castro told his 11 million subjects. Otherwise, we’d be the laughing stock of those terrible American imperialists …
And every day, on radio and in the paper and on television there would be these endless propaganda broadcasts and articles about the importance of the 10 million tonne sugar harvest that was to going to solve all our problems.
The slogan always was: Los diez millones van y de que van, van. Which means something like, “The 10 million tonnes are a done deal. It’s going to happen no matter what …”
It was all crap. Despite all the hard work and the obvious fiddling of the figures, the target proved elusive, to say the least. The campaign was a failure. In the process it destroyed what was left of the Cuban industrial base and sent the island into the bear-like economic embrace of the Soviet Union for decades to come.
Los Van Van were a product of that period, formed in 1969 specifically and deliberately to coincide with the 10 million tonnes campaign. Their music, which was played day in and day out on all the State-controlled radio stations (the only ones in Cuba), was supposed to make Cubans happy about spending their days under the hot tropical sun cutting sugarcane for the Revolution.
For better or worse, Los Van Van and their music were part and parcel of an experiment not all that long ago when an entire country was turned upside down and inside out by the mad obsessions of one man.
So, I wish them luck on Friday night. Hope it all goes well. I won’t be there.