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By David Adams in Havana @dadams7308
Almost 50 years after the Rolling Stones recorded Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the British band opened a historic concert in Havana with their early 1968 hit.
The song, containing the lyrics “it’s all right now,” was an appropriate way to kick off the free outdoor event in front of a massive crowd of hundreds of thousands of cheering fans in a sprawling sports complex.
Cubans have waited decades for a concert of this magnitude, in part because the Stones music was effectively banned until the 1980s by Cuba’s government which considered rock to be an “ideological deviation.”
The next song rammed home the point: "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)."
Many in the crowd, most of who were born long after the Stones shot to fame, were acutely aware of the enormous significance of the evening, sure to go down in the annals of stadium rock history.
The concert capped off an extraordinary week in Cuba which also saw Barack Obama become the first sitting president to visit the communist-run island.
“There are a lot of messages in the music tonight,” said Llilena Diaz, a 30-year-old theater director’s assistant. “It’s like a present to our parents and grandparents who weren’t allowed to listen to this music. We younger Cubans haven’t lived what they lived. This is for them.”
On a cool breezy evening under a near full moon, 72-year-old Mick Jagger - energetic as ever on stage - transported the fans back in time on a surreal journey through the bands discography.
Jagger peppered the lineup of 18 songs with some comments in Spanish, much to the enjoyment of fans.
“Here we are finally. We are sure this will be an unforgettable night,” he said before moving into Tumbling Dice, released in 1972.
“ Times are changing”
Later, in his clearest political reference of the evening, he told the crowd : “We know that years back it was hard to hear our music in Cuba, but here we are playing … I feel times are changing in Cuba.”
The orderly crowd stood mostly in awe, some dancing and waving British and Cuban flags, snapping photos and videos with their cellphones. While no official estimate was available for the crowd size, Reuters reported that Cuban state media estimated half a million people could fit in the venue, which was nearly full.
“This is marvelous. They are just as good as when they young,” said Alfredo Arias, a 69-year-old Ministry of Health fumigator, holding his arms in the air making the V for victory sign with fingers on both hands.
“I listened to the Rolling Stones growing up, even when it was forbidden. We fought for this day,” he added, saying he hoped it would open the door to other bands. “Mick I love you,” he shouted as Jagger launched into the band’s encore: ‘ (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,’ from 1965.
“It’s magical,” said Amaury Perez, 62, a famous Cuban singer-songwriter who said he saw the Stones perform in Spain as a young man in 1976. “How could I ever have imagined that 40 years later they would still be performing and I would still be alive to witness it, here in my Havana.”
Several Cuban officials, along with foreign celebrities – including actor Richard Gere - attended the concert, including Abel Prieto, a top adviser to Cuban president Raul Castro,
Perez said he had heard rumors that U2 and Paul McCartney could be the next major acts to perform in Havana as U.S. economic sanctions are being eased by the Obama administration and cultural barriers come down.
The visit by Obama and the Rolling Stones are seen by many Cubans and foreign observers as a major shift in Cuba’s relations with the rest of the world.
Opening to Western Culture
“It’s part of the opening up of Cuba,” the British ambassador to Cuba, Tim Cole, told reporters as he arrived for the concert. “They (the Cubans) are less isolated now, more part of the rock and roll world, more part of the world in general.”
He added; “they want to show they can welcome big bands like this and that they are open to Western culture.”
Also dancing in the crowd was South Florida-based signer Jimmy Buffett, who said he is working on his own Cuba concert in the next few months.
“Living in Key West I’ve been so close for so long, but it was so far for so long too.”
Asked about the Obama’s new policy of engagement with Cuba, Buffett added; “it’s great this is happening. It’s good for both sides.”
The concert was also a big draw for Stones fans around the world with large contingents from Latin America and the United States. “This is cutting edge stuff. It’s really special. I wanted to be in that number,” said Allison Elsee, 57, a criminal defense lawyer from New Orleans, who said it was her 103 rd Stones concert since 1975.
“As an American it’s no small feat getting here because of our travel restrictions," she said, which obliged her to fly via Cancun, Mexico. “I didn’t see a whole lot of Havana but I’ll be back,” she said.
Standing off to one side behind a barrier, a 70-year-old Cuban Ministry of Interior captain dressed in full uniform said he welcomed the arrival of the Stones. “I had to be here to witness this,” he said, declining to give his name, though adding he worked in the tourism sector where a number state companies are run by Cuba's military.
Asked about the early ban on rock music in Cuba he said, “we never had anything against their music but you have to remember that at that time we were defending ourselves from foreign aggression,” referring to the Cold War and U.S. efforts to bring about regime change in Cuba.
He also had warm words for Obama, though he said his speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday contained “ambiguous language” that did not make clear the true goal of the new U.S. policy of normalizing relations with Cuba.
“He has done some good things but he could do more,” the officer said, in a reference to the five decades-old economic embargo against Cuba.
Asked if he was happy about the concert, he said “we have always been content. Ever since the (1959) Cuban revolution we have been content.”