Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Los Van Van

  • Songo [Mango, 1989] A-
  • Azúcar [Xenophile, 1994] *
  • Best of Los Van Van [Milan, 1997] A-
  • La Colección Cubana [Music Club, 1998] A
  • The Best of Los Van Van [Hemisphere, 2000] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Songo [Mango, 1989]
This Paris-rerecorded compilation of top tunes by Cuba's top band is tasteful like Sesame Street rather than Masterpiece Theatre, stealing wittily from commercial culture rather than embalming good ideas in respectability. Electronics, double-hook song structures, sly vocal switchovers--all fit smoothly into a simple, expandable groove that's mellower and more polyrhythmic than Nuyorican salsa. Making it an ad for subsidized pop whether you like it or not. A-

Azúcar [Xenophile, 1994]
coro as groove instrument ("Disco Az˙car") *

Best of Los Van Van [Milan, 1997]
Catchy, simplistic, ramming home the clave, not shy of syndrums or syn-anything else, Los Van Van are the class of Castro-era Cuban pop. I still prefer Mango's rerecorded Songo, where four of the great hits here got richer, longer, and an elegant touch slower. But these cheesy '70s originals are the golden oldies of underdevelopment. Sometimes their high spirits seem forced, and sometimes their forced quality seems a mark of distinction, like the ingrown musical resources Juan Formell and his comrades had no choice but to make something new of. A-

La Colección Cubana [Music Club, 1998]
These dozen tracks from the decade-plus following Milan Latino's comp reinforce my suspicion that Cuba's essential postcharangists only got better as they went along. The songs roll their hips for an extra minute or two, which never hurts when the grooves are so sexy, and the comedy comes through even if you don't understand one word in 50 ("Hey, playa, I know that one, and they sure say mas a lot, must be what they want"). I also appreciate the synth splats on "De La Habanas A Matanzas." And the two minutes of percussion--most definitely including their secret weapon, vocal percussion--that is "Llegada." A

The Best of Los Van Van [Hemisphere, 2000]
Like James Brown in the '70s, they record too much. But if the Duke Ellington Orchestra was this vital after 30 years on the boards, it didn't showcase the new songs to prove it. Find the right section of any large metropolitan record store and the array of Los Van Van titles will make you dizzy; for those of us without Spanish on our tongues and Latino in our marrow, they blur together. But I've never heard a compilation that didn't reconfigure my cerebellum, and on this '94-'97 selection I note that, remarkably, the remakes are on average slightly less memorable than the newer compositions--which is not to suggest that the one that crowned the last show I caught, the Yoruba-based "Soy Todo," was truly new whenever it was written. A-