Ned Sublette Introduces Los Van Van at World Music Conference in Cardiff, Wales

Thanks to Rock and Rap Confidential for sharing this piece:


This presentation was made yesterday by our good friend Ned Sublette in Cardiff, Wales at the international world music conference known simply as WOMEX:

How many of you have been to Cuba?
How many of you have seen Los Van Van play?Los Van Van

You’re in for a treat today. Every Van Van concert is a historic experience, and today they’re going to play with the intensity of an impending storm.

In this kind of recital presentation in a seated auditorium, you get every note of the music, but it’s one level shy of the full experience. For that, you’d have to be standing on Cuban soil, preferably at the outdoor Havana dancehall La Tropical, with thousands of young Cubans putting their hearts into singing along with all the coros, experiencing the nuances of the lyrics in their faces, expressing the polyrhythms by moving different parts of their bodies in different directions, pushing the band to drive them harder. I saw this many times.

I came to Los Van Van late. Their official date of foundation was December 4, 1969, and I first heard them play live in January 1990 in a television studio in Havana, my third day ever in the country, at the taping of a TV special in honor of their twentieth anniversary. All that time already they’d been the maximum institution of Cuban popular music. I’d heard their records, though their records weren’t easy to get, given the pariah status of Cuba in the United States, which is why I subsequently started a record label called Qbadisc, at a time when there existed maybe five or ten CDs of Cuban music in the world.

You can’t imagine Cuban music without Los Van Van, any more than you can imagine the world’s music without Cuba. Havana was the first great music capital of the hemisphere. Already in the 16th century, musical ideas traveled from Havana back to Spain and up through Europe. Cuban influence has been heard worldwide ever since then, and Cuba’s a world power in music today. But following the change of government in 1959, after Cuba declared independence from the United States, a whole world came crashing down. Many musicians left, but more stayed. Technical resources vanished. Spare parts couldn’t be gotten. Impresarios fled. The country was embargoed, and, unfortunately, still is, by the United States. Cuban music had to be rebuilt, phoenix-like, out of the ashes. That process took years, out of earshot of most of the world, and it took until the 90s for Cuban music to reclaim its place on the world’s music stage after disappearing for decades into the memory hole.

During those long years, especially after the disappearance of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, during the austerities of what the Cuban government called the Special Period in Time of Peace, it seemed at times that Cubans were surviving on music. A popular song carried a lot of weight in Cuba, where media channels were few but far-reaching. A coro didn’t attain its full meaning until the entire country, from children to seniors, had sung it for a few months. People didn’t come out to hear old hits. They came to hear something new, something that would speak to their situation, and bands competed furiously to provide it.

Juan Formell began putting his coros into the Cuban air in 1968, when he first came to prominence as music director, composer, and bassist of Elio Revé’s group Changüí ’68. After a year and a half or so, he left that band to start his own group, and was joined by a number of musicians he had worked with in Revé’s band, who wanted to be part of the new thing. The first Van Van album sounds fresh today. Despite the technical limitations of the time and place, it’s a fabulous record that already contains the basic elements of the Van Van project. It was utterly experimental in the way it broke with the then prevailing harmonic and rhythmic practices. I love salsa, which is based on prerevolutioary Cuban music, but this is something else. This music took an alternative path, drawing on deep Cuban roots not to answer, but to ask, contemporary questions.

There’s a song they opened their sets with in the 90s: Qué tiene Van Van que siga ahí? What does Van Van have that it keeps going like this? What does it take to be not only the greatest dance band in Cuba, of all places, but to stay on top for almost forty-five years in that highly competitive musical environment, which among other things depends on continually being able to please the teenage dancing public?

Formell updated the band’s sound constantly – not to be trendy, but to take advantage of new instrumental and technical possibilities, as individual musicians came and went. I count twenty-three studio albums over forty-four years, and, despite an almost total turnover of personnel, if you listen to their first album from 1969 back-to-back with the last one, La Maquinaria, from 2011, despite all the changes, there’s a unity to it. Nobody else in Cuba or anywhere sounds Los Van Van. They’ve exerted an enormous influence over the bands that came after them, but nobody could copy their sound. They have a peculiar, original orchestral texture: a charanga instrumentation of flute and violins, but with trombones to fill in the tenor register. They sound like deluxe produced music when they play live.

But that’s just the surface of what’s different about them. Formell changed the rhythmic matrix of Cuban dance music. There’s a steady pulse, which people raised on rock and roll can identify with – cha, cha, cha, cha, easy for anyone to dance to. But then there are all these internal polyrhythms. Formell brought in the rhythms of the great classical music of West Africa, the batá rhythms of the Yoruba religion, into the basic dance texture. He reconceptualized the rhythm section. He popularized the use of the electric bass instead of the upright in Cuba. Los Van Van were brought electronics into Cuban music in a different way than any other band I’ve seen. They used a drumset, something you only previously saw in Cuban jazzbands and rock bands, but they used it differently. Los Van Van has had in forty-four years, only three drummers – Blas Egues, the mighty Changuito, and for the last twenty years or so, the drummer’s been Formell’s son, Samuel Formell, who’s presided over an era in which the present-day members of the group all grew up listening to Los Van Van.

Their cubanía shows up not only in the music, but also in the lyrics written by Formell and others, most notably including their great founding pianist and composer César “Pupy” Pedroso. If you want to know what it was like living in Cuba in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond, listen to Van Van, who sang in the language of the people – memorably personified by singer Pedro Calvo, among a number of others — about the challenges and pleasures of contemporary daily life. Even though Van Van played all over the world, the meaning of their music was rooted in the breadlines of Havana, and their validation came at the level of the baile popular, the popular dance. Cabeza, corazón, cintura, lots of bands have two of the three, but Los Van Van has all three. One of Formell’s greatest, simplest lyrics, is a simple exhortation to dance with your heart: Dale con el corazón, muévete, muévete . . .

There have long been two streams of Cuban music – one for domestic consumption, another for export. But Van Van is both. Over the decades, they’ve lived on airplanes, representing Cuba with sabor and dignity in many of the countries that are represented here today. But back in Cuba, they always had a song on the radio. When they have a song out, it stays on Cuban radio sometimes a year and a half, until another Van Van song comes along. You couldn’t gauge popularity by record sales in the unique anti-market of Cuba, so the way you knew who was the most popular was to line all the bands up on the Malecón and see who draws the biggest crowd, and that would be Los Van Van.

In February 1996, with Cuban music at the peak of yet another of its cycles of creativity, I saw the band play six consecutive nights at the Palacio de la Salsa in Havana’s Riviera Hotel. By that point the band had been in existence twenty-six years, and they rehearsed every day, as Cuban bands do. I was present all six nights, and I realized: even with all those years behind them, each night the band was growing. I heard this happen. Each night the band was a quarter of an inch bigger, finding new places to go as they made their way through the complicated, stretched-out arrangements that they played without reading. The band that finished that six-night run was just a little better than the band that started it. This process had been going on, one gig at a time, for decades.

I asked Juan Formell yesterday what it was like – one of those dumb interviewer questons, right? – given the exceptional role of Cuba in the world, what it was like to be emblematic of Cuba both at home and abroad all these years.  He said, “to represent your country on a level like this — what more can you ask God for? I don’t think I could ask for more than that.”

I’m happy to bestow this honor on Juan Formell – composer, lyricist, bandleader, bassist, singer — but Cuba bestowed it on him a long time ago. This is Juan’s award, but it’s an award to the heroic musicians of Cuba who kept their country going, to the dozens of people who have played in and facilitated Los Van Van, and it’s ultimately an award to Cuba, which I highly recommend you visit. As Mayito Rivera sang in Formell’s apotheosic “Soy Todo,” Yo soy Van Van, yo soy Cuba.

PEN Releases Statement on Crimes Against Journalists in Mexico

[PEN International released the following statement about the disappearance and punishment of journalists and writers in Mexico that makes  Mexico “one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a writer.” — editor]
23 October 2013

Mexico: Step up measures to end impunity for crimes against journalists

The climate of impunity which allows attacks on journalists in Mexico to remain unpunished is contributing to the on-going high level of risk to the security of writers in the country, PEN International said today as it attended the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Mexico’s human rights record in Geneva.

The organization reiterated its call for increased and effective protection for journalists and writers by the federal government.

‘Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a writer,’ said Ann Harrison, Programme Director of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

‘We have joined many other civil society organizations in pressing the Mexican government for several years to end impunity for killings of journalists and provide effective protection for those still working, but the measures put in place are largely ineffective.’

Since December 2006, at least 49 print journalists, writers and bloggers have been murdered and at least nine others have disappeared. Few of these attacks have been thoroughly investigated.

Impunity for crimes against journalists is estimated to stand at around 90 per cent and whilst some of the attacks are perpetrated by organized crime groups, many come from government agents at a state and local level.

Despite the introduction of two mechanisms aimed at protecting journalists under threat, and the creation of the office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE), fewer than 10 per cent of attacks against journalists and writers result in convictions.

‘Frankly, the Mexican authorities are paying mere lip service to these pervasive impunity issues,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

‘Mechanisms and promises do not constitute action. Many journalists are dying, and others are intimidated into silence.’

Other legal reforms such as the decriminalization of slander and libel, which should have decreased the risk of journalists facing prison for their reporting, have had little effect. Thirteen of Mexico’s 32 states continue to criminalize defamation; these laws are used to intimidate journalists who uncover corruption.

PEN International has long campaigned for freedom of expression in Mexico. In 2012 a large <>PEN International delegation assembled in Mexico, led by its full executive team and including representatives of all seven North American PEN Centres. PEN put forward specific recommendations, met with key government figures and held public events.

In late 2012, PEN International published the anthology <>Write Against Impunity, a literary protest highlighting the escalating violence against journalists, writers and bloggers in Latin America – in particular Mexico, Honduras and Brazil – and the impunity enjoyed by those who commit these crimes.

During <>a follow-up visit in March 2013 PEN found that progress to protect writers and journalists had been slow. In a submission to the UPR process, PEN International joined PEN Guadalajara to outline its concerns for the safety of journalists and made the following recommendations:

Ensure that the 49 murders and nine disappearances of writers and print and internet journalists that have taken place since December 2006, as well as any other unsolved murders and disappearances from previous periods, are properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice;
Provide public information on the state of the investigations into the murders of writers Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila and Guillermo Fernández García;
Ensure that all attacks against writers and print and internet journalists alleged to have been carried out by government entities at any level are fully and promptly investigated as a matter of urgency;
Ensure as a matter of urgency that FEADLE is allocated sufficient financial, material and human resources in order to carry out its work, and support the office to make use of its newly strengthened powers to investigate and prosecute crimes against journalists and freedom of expression;
Address criticisms of the current protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders in consultation with these groups;
Ensure that steps are taken towards the complete decriminalization of defamation in all 32 Mexican states;
Ensure that the Article 33 Regulatory Law is enacted as a matter of urgency and to provide assurances that foreigners are not being expelled from Mexico in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

To see the full UPR submission click <>here.

Hire Scabs to Replace Congress! by Jill Charles

The Scab Government

[Jill Charles is a member of the Bezazian Library cohort of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance.  She read this piece at an open mic before the featured themed reading, Poetry to Change the World, sponsored by Occupy Rogers Park, the Guild Complex and the Chicago Consortium for Working Class Studies (Oct. 6, 2013).  We are pleased and honored to be able to offer this to the on line multitude].

By Jill Charles

During the government shutdown this October, the American public made the radical decision to hire scabs to replace the US Congress.

“I’m tired of not getting food for my children because Newt Gingrich feels pissy about health care reform,” said Georgia mother of five Clara Davis, who

The "Fight for 15" movement is made up of people like Clara Davis, who, in the text of the piece by Jill Charles, has to work 2 jobs and still is eligible for WIC.

The “Fight for 15” movement is made up of people like Clara Davis, who, in the text of the piece by Jill Charles, has to work 2 jobs and still is eligible for WIC.

works two jobs and still relies on WIC to get by.

She and fellow Georgians hired Mabel Louis, a laid-off Head Start teacher, in Gingrich’s place.

Louis said “Like all of the scab Congress, I’ve recently lost my job due to the recession and government cutbacks.  I’ve done my absolute best teaching preschool for 27 years and am ready to work on health care and education reform to assist everyone in my state.”

The scab representatives come from all 50 states and a variety of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but all were chosen for their skills at compromise and living with a limited budget.

“Congress never balanced their budget and kept voting to give themselves raises,” said

Joe Whalen, formerly a park ranger from Wenatchee, Washington. “That will never happen again.  Also we ended the nuclear missile program, stopped drone warfare and brought all US troops home from the Middle East earlier today.”

“We’re working on a plan to set up windmills in every county for electricity,” said Panika Atuat, a new representative from Alaska. “I don’t believe any nonsense about global warming not being real because I watched my village – Newtok, Alaska – sink in the mud when the permafrost melted.”

“She’s darn tootin!” added Bob Gunderson, scab rep and Wisconsin organic dairy

farmer. “I’ve struggled with droughts for the last ten years.  I’m determined to make disaster relief quicker and put fresh produce in every school lunch.”

Despite their differences, the scab Congress has passed a record number of laws.

“We won’t let our religious differences slow down health care reform,” said scab rep Maria Avila, a Catholic school nurse from Texas.  “After all, every major world religion believes in helping the poor and the sick.”

Former members of Congress such as Ted Cruz and John Boehner are picketing outside the Capitol, but no one pays them any attention.

“Listen, I never imagined I would be a scab,” said Detroit union electrician Jay Thomas. “But Congress and their corporate sponsors took my job first. At least we’re not a shadow government.”