The Rolling Stones in Cuba: It’s not just rock ‘n roll baby

  • AFP, Havana
  • Updated: Mar 25, 2016 11:31 IST
Members of The Rolling Stones, from, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Ron Wood pose for photos from the plane that brought them to Cuba at Jose Marti international airport in Havana. (AP Photo)

When the Rolling Stones rock Havana this Friday in their first ever Cuban concert, the sound system will blast to as many as a million fans. Back in the 1980s though, rock fan Ricardo Gutierrez listened to Jagger and co a little differently: in secret.

“You had to go in a room and close the door. Then you turned the volume really low,” said Gutierrez, 48, a former military officer who gets by as a taxi driver in the Cuban capital. “You couldn’t let anyone hear you.”

The Stones concert, three days after a groundbreaking visit to Havana by US President Barack Obama, is about much more than rock ‘n roll for Cuba.

Some, only half jokingly, question which event is the more historic.

The communist authorities repressed foreign music to varying degrees from the 1960s-90s, branding it subversive, a tool of the imperialist Yankees. And although those restrictions are long gone, Cuba remains lost in time in rock terms -- just as in many other ways.

Now, many see the Stones’ arrival as a chance for the isolated island finally to join the rest of the world’s party.

“A Rolling Stones concert in Havana? It’s a dream,” said Eddie Escobar, 45, who founded one of Havana’s few clubs for live rock music, the Yellow Submarine, and who remembers secretly searching for US commercial radio frequencies so that he could hear the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the like.

(AFP Photo)

“Rock music, I hope, will open everything else -- politics, the economy, the Internet. We’re 20 years behind absolutely everything,” said Escobar, sporting a silver earing and pony tail. “Music’s a door, an open door to change.”

Rocky road for rockers

The Stones are not charging for tickets to Friday’s gig. Few Cubans would be able to pay.

Estimates are that 500,000 people will cram into the Ciudad Deportivo sports complex, with the overflow crowd in surrounding streets possibly adding up to a million, or one out of every 11 Cubans.

Part of the attraction will be the novelty: Cuba has seen only a relative handful of concerts by major international acts.

Once, that was because of ideological barriers. Today the obstacles are financial, logistical and the US economic embargo, which despite Obama’s peace mission remains in place.

Organisers told music industry magazine Billboard that the stadium-level production for the Stones meant importing 61 sea containers, a packed Boeing 747, and 350 crew.

A man wears a t-shirt with a logo of the band Rolling Stones, outside the venue of the Stones' free outdoor concert on March 25 at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana sports complex, in Havana. (REUTERS)

So imagine the complications facing struggling Cuban rockers.

“We have a lot of trouble getting equipment,” said David Yabor, the 33-year-old lead singer of a group called Aire Libre, gearing up to play at the Yellow Submarine.

“We don’t have access to professional equipment. We don’t have stores where we can buy things like guitars or bass amplifiers or quality microphones,” he said.

Even getting simple music recordings is a typically complex Cuban experience.

Shop on iTunes or other online stores? Forget it: between Cuba’s lack of Internet access and the US blockade, it’s almost impossible for Cubans to purchase anything online or even download the apps.

State-run music stores, like La Havana Si, sell only Cuban music, a leftover perhaps of the old hostility toward the rock ‘n roll invaders.

So Cubans go to shops openly selling pirated music, like Calle L, where for about $1 you can get a CD burned with songs from the store’s catalogue, even if these days Latino dance and reggaeton are requested far more than the golden oldies.

Lost generation

Although the concert has been promoted on state television, there are no posters around Havana and AFP found only one store with merchandising: Rolling Stones key rings.

Still, there’s no need to fire up the core fan base -- middle-aged Cubans like Eduardo Gonzalez, 51, who recalls when he risked getting in trouble for passing vinyl records and cassettes between friends.

Asked whether the Obama visit or the concert was more important, Gonzalez, a translator who was in Calle L to shop for pirated tunes, pointed to his hand:

“What’s more important -- this finger or that finger?”

And while Cuban youth have limited interest in a band that has three members in their 70s and one in his late 60s, they too are expected to flock to the Ciudad Deportivo.

“It’s the generation of our parents,” said medical student Jose Antonio Gonzalez, 22, who listens to Adele and hip-hop group CIA “I’m definitely going, though. Cubans love music and partying!”

Former army officer Gutierrez said, however, that he’ll be sitting the concert out.

However much he loved rock ‘n roll, the appearance of the four elderly British superstars playing music dating in some cases from the 1960s only reminds him how much has passed Cuba by.

“It’s too late,” he said bitterly.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. They give us the old Rolling Stones now, but when they were really the Rolling Stones we weren’t allowed them,” he said.

“We missed the train.”

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