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Ideological barriers come down as Rolling Stones make history in Havana

Only days after another historic visit by president Obama, Cuban music lovers are agog at the prospect of seeing ‘Los Rollings’ perform for the first time in Havana
24 Mar 2016 – 05:33 PM EDT
The Rolling Stones Crédito: Getty Images

By David Adams in Havana @dadams7308

Wrapping up a gig at the Yellow Submarine, a small state-run rock venue in Havana, David Rico, 33, grabbed the microphone.

“See you on Friday at the Rolling Stones,” he said. “Go early, it’s going to be packed.”

Only days after a historic visit to Cuba by American president Barack Obama, Cuban music lovers, young and old, are agog at the prospect of seeing ‘Los Rollings’ perform for the first time in Havana.

Besides the novelty, Friday night’s free concert has special significance for many Cubans who remember a dark early period in the history of the communist-run island when rock – along with long hair and tight jeans – could get you in political trouble for “ideological deviance.”

At the height of the Cold War in the 60s and 70s, anything in Cuba that smacked of the west or countered communist beliefs – including Catholicism or being gay - was seen as an enemy of Cuba’s young socialist revolution, led by Fidel Castro.

In music terms, that included everything from The Beatles to Spanish romantic crooner Julio Iglesias, and, of course, the bad boys of the British rock scene, The Rolling Stones.

Cultural crackdown

While the parents of teens around the globe worried about the influence of the Stones music and the rock-and-roll drug culture, in Cuba the island’s communist leaders were educating a generation to prepare for an invasion by the ‘Yanqui imperialists’ to the north.

The cultural crackdown swept up many literary figures, some who went into exile. Others, including Cuba’s now famous troubadour Pablo Milanes and the island’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega - a young priest at the time – were sent to labor camps in the countryside to learn to be good communists.

“What an amazing week,” said Cuban American former music promoter and publisher, Hugo Cancio. “In one week two big barriers have come down, one political and one cultural,” he said.

“First there was an American invasion, but not the one we were led to believe,” he added.

“Our hotels, restaurants and streets were invaded by all the people who came with Obama. Now it’s the invasion of the Lords of British rock. How great is that! It’s almost beyond belief.”

Cancio, 51, fled Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift – pretending to be a homosexual – but later returned and now spends his time between Miami and Havana.

He remembers growing up listening to foreign music clandestinely in his home town of Varadero, a beach resort popular with Canadian tourists a two hour drive east of Havana.

Cassette tapes

“I grew up with tremendous ideological deviance,” he laughed, recalling the cassette tapes that tourists would give away to young Cubans eager for a taste of the forbidden fruit of the enemy.

The son of a famous Cuban musician, Cancio said he grew up listening to American pop balladeers Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. “Her name is Lola. She was a showgirl,” he sang, mimicking the 1978 Manilow hit, Copacabana.

Older Cubans recall tuning in to a Miami FM radio station WQAM to catch the latest tunes.

When he was a small boy chef Alberto Gonzalez remembers his father, a merchant seaman, bringing home foreign LPs and tapes. If the music was too loud his mother would rush in. “She’d say ‘Shhhh’, turn it down,” he said. “I didn’t understand why.”

Enthusiasm in Cuba is so great that some observers say attendance at the show could top the band’s all time record – an estimated crowd of over one million in Brazil in 2006.

The band brought in 61 shipping containers with an estimated 500 tonnes of equipment such as the stage, speakers, lights and video screens, aid the band's production manager, Dale "Opie" Skjerseth told reporters.

A crew of more than a hundred Stones employees erected the stage on the sprawling sports complex on the outskirts of Havana with a capacity for hundreds of thousands of spectators.

“We are very excited to be coming to play for you!” Stones lead singer Mick Jagger said in a slick video the band released this week prior to arriving.

Speaking in passable Spanish, Jagger told Cubans; “We’ve performed in many incredible places, but this concert is Havana is going to be an historic event for us. We hope it will be for you too.”

For many Cubans, the big hope is that the Stones will accelerate a slow process of change to the island’s strictly controlled political and economic system.

“The timing of the Stones arrival is perfect”

During a two-day visit earlier this week Obama delivered a powerful speech declaring an end to decades of U.S. efforts at regime change in Cuba. He also made an emotional call for reconciliation between the island’s leaders and exiles in Miami, leaving many listeners with moist eyes.

“The timing of the Stones arrival is perfect,” said Frank Luis Travieso, a 25-year-old linguistics student who sings with a Havana rock band ‘Franko’s.’

“Things are changing here, I really feel it, and the Stones are part of that process,” he said after an early evening open air concert in downtown Havana.

Most Cubans are more familiar with traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms of cha-cha-cha, mambo, and son, he said. But modern music is widely listened to these days, including rap, hip-hop and reggaeton.

At the Yellow Submarine, named after a famous Beatles song, Rico’s cover band ‘Fresh Air’ (Aire Libre) performed several Stones hits on Wednesday night, including Brown Sugar and Satisfaction, along with other classics by Deep Purple, The Police and Queen.

One man in the audience, independent journalist Luis Cino, 59, said his devotion to British and American music got him expelled from the University of Havana in 1974. “I was told I had serious ideological problems,” he said.

He had mixed emotions about the concert.

“I feel immense happiness and frustration. It’s exciting that they are finally here, but I would have liked to see them in my 20s,” he said.

“They are the sound track of my life.”