Only rock and roll? Rolling Stones make history at Havana concert

At 72, Mick Jagger is only 12 years younger than Cuban President Raul Castro.

The Rolling Stones hit the scene not long after the start of the Cuban Revolution. The musicians began their careers in 1962, the same year that President John F Kennedy was informed that Soviet missiles aimed at the United States were stationed on the Caribbean island.

The band's music was considered taboo by the anti-capitalist Castro regime.

But on Friday, a concert in Havana ended the wait for Cuban Stones fans. It came in the same week that a visit from US President Barack Obama wrote political history, as Cold War tensions between the two countries appear to be softening.

The blue, white and red of the Cuban flag flashed above the stage, marking the start of the concert, as footage showed Cuba's trademark vintage cars driving past smiling crowds. Screens read Bienvenidos a La Habana (Welcome to Havana).

Guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts took to the stage, followed by Jagger, who seduced the crowds with his Spanish.

"For many years, it was difficult to listen to us in Cuba," he said. "Now we're here. The times are changing."

Jagger said he was enjoying the hot Caribbean climate, although that may have been the reason for half a dozen outfit changes. He also told fans that he had danced the rumba on the eve of the concert.

Richards repeatedly got down on his knees to take stock of the jubilant masses. Several hundred thousand people flocked to the free concert at the Ciudad Deportiva complex, according to Cuba's official party newspaper, Granma.

The Stones, whose four members have a combined age of 286 years, made rock history with the Havana date, while also filling a gap in their global resume of stadium gigs. Their careers have endured long into their 70s, and Watts at times seemed strained on the drums.

From the acoustic ballad Angie to the foot-stomping classic Brown Sugar, the musicians rewarded their Cuban fans for years of patience with a plethora of hits. Jagger gyrated to Sympathy for the Devil in a plush red outfit, emanating the opulence of a music style that riled Communist Cuba for so many years. All Down the Line was chosen by fans on social media to feature on the band's set list.

At the mammoth stadium in Havana, the Stones' tongue-and-lips emblem provided the backdrop to the show as it flashed on huge video screens in red and gold.

Fans were seen imitating the pose in selfies at the venue. However, they were mostly tourists, with modern smartphones being a luxury item inaccessible to many locals.

While state provision guarantees all Cubans a home and medical care, the average monthly wage of 20-25 dollars means that most concerts put on by the Rolling Stones would have been unaffordable for the average fan.

The band said the event - the country's first open-air concert by a British rock band - was made possible thanks to support from a cultural foundation on behalf of the Caribbean island of Curacao.

The concert was void of the usual food, drinks and T-shirt stalls, ubiquitous at popular music events elsewhere. Among the music lovers who began filling the venue six hours before the show, some were seen defying a stadium ban on alcohol by smuggling in bottles of rum.

The smell of marijuana that fills rock concerts in the West was replaced in Havana with a haze of cigar smoke. And instead of the standard rows of portable toilets, both male and female concertgoers made do with manholes surrounded by metal cubicles.

The crowd extended to beyond the stadium, with groups of onlookers gathered on the rooftops of nearby flats to catch a glimpse of the rockstars. Savvy residents charged 15 dollars for access.

Otherwise, it was the tourists who made money from the event. Two Argentinians were selling stickers for the show at 1 dollar each. "We're using it [the money] to finance our trip," one said.

Lena Madrigal, a 22-year-old physiotherapist, said, "Before I only knew a couple of songs from television." In red pen, she had written the words "I love the Rolling Stones" on her leg.

"Cuba is opening itself to the world, and the world is opening itself to Cuba," 42-year-old Jorge Ravela said.

Nonetheless, some Cuban bands critical of the regime still face oppression. Jagger steered clear of mentioning such controversy while chatting to the crowd.

At a Cuban Communist Party congress in mid April, it remains to be seen how genuine this new course - chartered by Raul Castro on succeeding his brother Fidel - really is for Cuba and its neighbours. The leader has set his sights on boosting tourism and bringing about an end to years of crippling US-imposed sanctions.

After a two-hour performance, the Stones closed on an energetic rendition of Satisfaction. But for some Cubans, the show has merely whetted their appetite.

One says, "Next time, Metallica need to come."

Last update: Sat, 26/03/2016 - 15:11


Rolling Stones rock communist Cuba


Saturday, March 26, 2016 - 07:26

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