Los Van Van, from Havana, Cuba, are an incredible band to see live. With 16 musicians and vocalists on stage, they are true to the Spanish term for such a band: orquesta. I have seen them before – at the Roundhouse in London in 2009 – but I appreciated them so much more this time around. Not just because I have had considerably more salsa classes or because I know more of their music, but because I now better understand timba.
Timba is a complex concept. It is much more than modern Cuban salsa. There are many articles explaining its musical, social, geographical and probably even revolutionary origins, but like all modern Cuban music, it has its deepest roots in Africa. Just like modern Cuban dance is a like a layered cake of Santeria-influenced Afro-Cuban styles with a filling of rumba, a marzipan of son, and icing of salsa and a sprinkling of street dance; timba is a musical layering and mixing of rhythms and instruments, heavily influenced both by the African and the Cuban but also by jazz, rock, disco and – latterly – hip hop. It’s about the clave, the essential keeper of the Cuban beat, but it’s not all about the clave. It’s about the tempo, but it’s also about the contratiempo; the syncopation. It’s all in there and a talented dancer will be able to pick out several rhythms in one track.
A Los Van Van performance is so engaging – there’s something for everyone. A brass section of 4, 4 vocalists, at least 4 percussionists and the energy of the whole of Havana having a street party on the 1st January. On top of that, no-one ever stops dancing. The vocalists in particular – during their joint efforts as well as their solo numbers – are always stepping out the beat, and often in their trademark formation style.
If Cuba did such a thing, Los Van Van would have the â sign for songo, their own variation on the timba theme. It’s a kind of rumba-funk hybrid, with the drum beats coming from the classic Cuban trio of timbales, conga and bongos, plus the addition of a full rock drum-kit, played in Leeds by Samuel Formell, son of Los Van Van founder, Juan Formell.
Undoubtedly the most recognisable number for the majority of non-Cubans in the audience was ‘Me Mantengo’ from their 2009 Arrasando album, which – thanks to Kerry Ribchester – has had a video make-over and this year won the LUKAS award for best music video (to sit beside their Latin Grammy from 2000). This is the video:
It’s not often that the band my Cuban friends tell me is the “biggest/best/most popular (delete as appropriate) Cuban salsa orchestra in the world” comes to the UK and I’m so glad to have been there dancing and singing along!
© Lynn Sheppard