Rolling Stones give Cuba its satisfaction

By Harriet Alexander in Havana

On arriving in Havana, the Stones' frontman revealed how pleased the band members were to be making history and taking their music to a new audience. Photo / AP
On arriving in Havana, the Stones' frontman revealed how pleased the band members were to be making history and taking their music to a new audience. Photo / AP

It was 1962. In London, a group of young musicians hastily named the Rolling Stones took to the stage for the first time. A little later that same year, the leader of another group of young revolutionaries also stood up in public, as Fidel Castro pronounced rock 'n' roll "the music of the enemy".

At the weekend, in a night many Cubans had never dared dream possible, the sounds that were once banned from the airways became the beating heart of Castro's Cuba, echoing for miles across the capital.

"Good evening Havana! Finally we're here," said Mick Jagger, speaking in theatrical, exaggerated Spanish to half a million people at by far the biggest-ever concert to take place on the Caribbean island.

"We know that in years gone by it was difficult to listen to our music here in Cuba. But we are here!" he said. "Playing for you. And we think that finally times are changing."

Three days before the show Barack Obama, making the first visit to Cuba by a US president in almost 90 years, joked that his trip was but a warm-up for the band.

"Even as Cubans prepare for the arrival of the Rolling Stones we're moving ahead with more events and exchanges that bring Cubans and Americans together as well," he said.

Certainly the free gig had an epic, history-making feel to it.

A-listers Naomi Campbell and Richard Gere filed in as the sun set on Friday, and the show opened to a colour-explosion video featuring 1950s cars, cigars and Carmen Miranda-style salsa dancers.

Keith Richards, 72, beaming in a green silk bomber jacket and bandanna, remarked with wonder: "Obama. Cuba. We're so happy to be here." Opening with Jumpin' Jack Flash, a sequin-clad Jagger was at his strutting, preening, swivelling finest. What would Fidel Castro, 89, have made of Jagger, resplendent in a red feathered cape, singing of his Sympathy for the Devil? And yet Communist officials were there, in a sign of how much this show mattered.

On arriving in Havana, the Stones' frontman revealed how pleased the band members were to be making history and taking their music to a new audience.

Richards, with a wicked smile, gleefully added: "That's what happens when you ban things."

The iconic tongue symbol of the Rolling Stones sits atop the similarly iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Photo / AP
The iconic tongue symbol of the Rolling Stones sits atop the similarly iconic image of revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Photo / AP

Cuba had never seen anything like this. Planned since October, the concert had taken shape slowly, with a delicate dance between the repressive Communist government and the Stones' production team.

Over a fortnight, the Ciudad Deportiva sports field was transformed by the arrival of 62 shipping containers full of equipment - high-ranking Communist Party figures including Miguel Diaz-Canel, the Vice-President, came to stare in awe at the rock city the Stones built.

Despite there being no advance advertising - the only posters you see in Cuba feature revolutionary hero Che Guevara or Castro promoting the wonders of socialism - hundreds of thousands swarmed on to the grass on the outskirts of Havana, chattering excitedly about Los Rolling. One man was seen in a homemade Stones T-shirt depicting Jagger as Guevara.

For while fans in the band's previous tour stops of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina had waited a decade for the Stones, Cubans had waited a lifetime.

"Until they took to the stage, I kept on telling myself it was just a dream," said David Yaco, 62, who spent much of the 70s, 80s and 90s being harassed by the police just for listening to music.

"The idea of them actually playing here ... it's surreal."

Rock music was never, as commonly believed, declared "illegal".

But after a March 1963 speech by Castro at the University of Havana, it was certainly discouraged.

Castro warned of "vagabond worms, sons of bourgeoisie, [who] wander around with trousers that are too tight - some of them with guitars and 'Elvispresleyan' attitudes" who "want to go to public spaces and organise free, effeminate shows".

A year later "Anglo Saxon" music was banned from Cuban airwaves and the repression of rock 'n' roll began in earnest.

At the heart of Havana's rock scene was Maria Gattorno, now 64, who Cuban rockers today affectionately call "the mother" of their gang. From 1987 to 2003 she ran El Patio de Maria - an oasis for rock fans, situated, ironically, a stone's throw from Plaza de la Revolucion and Castro's seat of power.

"We had terrible sound equipment - but they all imagined they were at Woodstock or Madison Square Garden," she laughed. "Little by little they showed it was possible; that Cuba had good rock music and that there didn't have to be a conflict between rockers and the government."

But her outdoor bar was still regularly raided. Rock fans were not arrested for liking the music, but they would be detained for "counter-revolutionary tendencies" and public order offences if they criticised the government during a raid. Being a rocker made their arrest more likely, Maria said. By 2003 the government had enough, however, and El Patio was shut down.

But slowly the repression became unsustainable. By that point Eddie Escobar had been arrested more times than he cared to remember.

"I wasn't scared, I was just angry," he said, recalling his teenage years in the 1980s when the Cuban police would regularly detain him.

He was frequently stopped while walking along the road clutching an LP of English-language music.

For Mr Escobar, the turning point was when Fidel Castro himself unveiled a statue of John Lennon in 2000, the 20th anniversary of the Beatle's murder, in the capital's re-christened Parque John Lennon.

"And he gave this speech, saying he'd never realised how Lennon's lyrics were full of peace and humanity," said Mr Escobar, shaking his head. "And I thought 'You *******! You speak English - you knew all along."

On Friday night, the former prisoner, now 45, had VIP tickets - having met the Stones on the eve of their show.

"I said 'Mick, thank you so much for coming'," he said. "Cuba will never forget this."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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