Sunday , December 17 2017

Stones rock Cuba ready for ‘change’ – Historic free concert

British singer and frontman of rock band The Rolling Stones Mick Jagger performs during a concert at Ciudad Deportiva in Havana, Cuba, on March 25. (AFP)
British singer and frontman of rock band The Rolling Stones Mick Jagger performs during a concert at Ciudad Deportiva in Havana, Cuba, on March 25. (AFP)

HAVANA, March 26, (Agencies): Cuba had never seen the Rolling Stones before, and after Mick Jagger rocked and seduced hundreds of thousands in Havana on Friday, the communist island is likely never to be quite the same again.

A crowd flowed across the Cuban capital’s Ciudad Deportiva, a huge sports complex with a capacity of 450,000.

The human tide then spilled further into the streets, some even standing thick on neighboring rooftops.

When fans raised their phones and cameras to get snapshots of Jagger strutting across the giant stage, the flashes looked like a new galaxy.

This was the British superstars’ first concert in Cuba. It was the first gig, in fact, by any rock band of such stature, with a production featuring giant video screens and a sound system that got the crowd jumping, arms swaying, to classic after classic, from “Angie” to “Paint it Black”.

But the night was about much more than music.

Friday’s free concert turned history on its head, in a country where just a few decades ago, all rock music was considered part of an enemy plot against the communist state.

Cheers

“We know that years ago it was difficult to hear our music in Cuba, but here we are playing,” Jagger said in Spanish, prompting huge cheers.

“I think that truly the times are changing,” he said. “That’s true, isn’t it?”

The crowd erupted during songs like “Out of Control” and “Satisfaction”, with people of all ages singing along to the choruses and jumping up and down in rhythm to thunderous guitar solos.

“It’s so amazing that they came to Cuba and united such a variety of people, young and old,” said Andres Enda, 24, a dancer.

“Change is already coming — the fact they’re here shows that”.

Jagger, 72, Keith Richards, 72, Charlie Watts, 74, and Ronnie Wood, 68, flew in late Thursday, just two days after US President Barack Obama ended his historic visit aimed at overcoming more than a half-century of US-Cuban hostility.

The twin events added up to a tumultuous week for Cuba, run by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul ever since their guerrilla army deposed a hated, US-backed regime in 1959.

Although Jagger’s comment about changing times was his only overtly political statement, the whole concert seemed like a massive declaration by Cubans that they want to join the world.

Enjoying

Flags from many countries floated above the crowd, Cubans young and old sang along in English, and the adoration for the aging rockers seemed to be about more than just the enjoying good music.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, rock ‘n roll was discouraged to varying degrees in Cuba, leading during the most repressive years to clandestine listening sessions and an underground trade in smuggled recordings.

Those restrictions have gone, but the ban on political and media freedoms has not, while the ramshackle communist economy and decades-old US economic embargo have forced many into lives of stiflingly few opportunities.

The crowd danced, swayed and for one long spell joined Jagger in intense back-and-forth singing, seemingly sending a message that the time has come to move on.

“Mick Jagger showed his optimism here,” said Sofia Fernandez de Cossio, 19. “There’s a lot of optimism now. You notice it in the country. People are more positive”.

The Stones’ show was among the most ambitious ever staged in Cuba, requiring 61 sea containers and a packed Boeing 747 filled with gear and equipment.

It was not clear whether many more big bands would be coming soon, however.

The island woefully lacks infrastructure, remains under the US embargo, and most Cubans are in any case too poor to pay regular concert ticket prices.

Cuban police were out in large numbers, but remained discreetly to the sides during the concert. Many fans ignored an alcohol ban, bringing in bottles of rum to drink, as well as puffing on fat Cuban cigars.

While the Stones’ technical teams were operating state-of-the-art light and sound systems, the Cuban contribution was tellingly basic.

As nearly everywhere else in Cuba, there was no wi-fi signal at the sports complex, and as soon as the crowds grew, cellphones went dead. Metal cabins positioned over ordinary street drains served as public toilets.

The band had called on fans via Twitter to vote for one of four songs — “Get Off My Cloud”, “All Down the Line”, “She’s So Cold”, and “You Got Me Rocking” — to be included on the playlist.

But few in Cuba, where Internet is not widely available, would have been able to even see Twitter, let alone vote.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans cheered and sang with the Rolling Stones in Havana on Friday in the group’s first ever concert in communist Cuba, where rock music was once banned.

The Ciudad Deportiva sports complex in the Cuban capital, with a capacity of 450,000, was crammed. The sea of people flowed beyond into the streets, with crowds even standing thick on neighboring rooftops for a total of about half a million fans.

“We know that years ago it was difficult to hear our music in Cuba, but here we are playing,” Stones frontman Mick Jagger said in Spanish to the crowd, prompting huge cheers.

“I think that truly the times are changing”, he said. “That’s true, isn’t it?”

The crowd responded deliriously, with people of all ages jumping up and down in rhythm to thunderous guitar solos and singing along to Jagger’s choruses in classic after classic, from “Angie” to “Paint it Black”.

The concert was given free by the Stones and was not only their first gig in Cuba, but the first by any group of its stature.

“It’s so amazing that they came to Cuba and united such a variety of people, young and old,” said Andres Enda, 24, a dancer.

“Change is already coming — the fact they’re here shows that”.

Jagger, 72, Keith Richards, 72, Charlie Watts, 74, and Ronnie Wood, 68, flew in late Thursday, arriving just two days after a political superstar, US President Barack Obama, ended his historic visit aimed at overcoming more than a half-century of US-Cuban hostility.

The twin events added up to a tumultuous week for Cuba, which has been run by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul at the head of the Communist Party ever since their guerrilla army drove out a US-backed regime in 1959.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, rock ‘n roll was discouraged to varying degrees, leading during the most repressive years to clandestine listening sessions and an underground trade in smuggled recordings.

“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.

He remembers secretly searching for US commercial radio frequencies so that he could hear the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the like.

“Rock music, I hope, will open everything else — politics, the economy, the Internet. We’re 20 years behind absolutely everything,” Escobar said.

The Stones’ show was the most grandiose ever staged in Cuba, where no other comparable rock group has come to play — put off by a lack of infrastructure and Cubans’ lack of spending power, as well as the complications of getting around the US economic embargo on Cuba.

Organizers told Billboard that the high-tech production meant importing gear in 61 sea containers and a packed Boeing 747.

The Cuban contribution to the technical side of the concert was decidedly lower-key.

As nearly everywhere else in Cuba, there was no wi-fi signal at the sports complex, and as the crowds grew cellphones became unreliable. Cabins built over drains served as public toilets.

The band called on fans via Twitter to vote for one of four songs — “Get Off My Cloud”, “All Down the Line”, “She’s So Cold”, and “You Got Me Rocking” — to be included on the playlist. But few in Cuba, where Internet is not widely available, have access to Twitter.

“I love Mick Jagger so much. I’ve always dreamed about this. I couldn’t sleep knowing he would be here,” said Angela Menendez, who cleans floors in a hospital.

Security was low key and there was a noticeable absence of would-be entrepreneurs selling T-shirts or memorabilia.

People were dressed in all manner of jeans, T-shirts and boots with the Stones’ tongue and lips logo.

Cubans have taken to coloring the tongue with the stars and stripes of the US flag, whether in the mistaken belief that the British rock stars were American or in the spirit of this week’s historic visit by US President Barack Obama.

The Stones formed in London in 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s bearded rebels toppled a pro-American government.

Castro’s revolutionary government came to see counterculture bands like the Stones and the Beatles as dangerously subversive and prohibited their music on TV and radio.

Half a century later, both the Rolling Stones and Cuba’s leadership share a longevity, performing well beyond what most people would consider retirement age.

The band’s advancing years did not stop the youngsters in the audience enjoying the show, however.

“Don’t let anybody tell you different, this is the best concert in the history of Cuba”, said Cristian, 18, a reggaeton fan who this month saw electronic music act Major Lazer in another free gig.

For Juan Carlos Leon, 57, the event was more than special.

“To me, this is a consecration”, Leon said. “I’ve waited my whole life for this. The Stones are the greatest”.

From Sunday evening to late Friday night, it felt as if the full force of the 21st century had landed with bone-rattling impact on an island that still feels mostly cut off from the modern world.

“Havana, Cuba, and the Rolling Stones!” Jagger cried. “This is amazing! It’s really good to be here! It’s good to see you guys!”

The Stones romped through 18 of their classics, picking up force as the crowd in the open-air Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, jumped and chanted “Rollings! Rollings!”

But times have changed. Former supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Richard Gere and singer Jimmy Buffet partied in the VIP section of the concert. Castro’s son Alejandro, one of the driving forces behind Cuba’s declaration of detente with the United States, greeted friends and relatives after the show.

Far from the Cuban and international elites, ordinary Cubans said they felt shot through with energy, reconnected with the world.

“After today I can die”, said 62-year-old night watchman Joaquin Ortiz. “This is like my last wish, seeing the Rolling Stones”.

Rivers of spectators flowed north and south from the concert site after the show, watched over by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of security officials.

Few were willing to comment on the connections between the concert and Obama’s visit earlier in the week, but many said the concert had implications beyond simple entertainment.

“The Rolling Stones being in Cuba at this time is like several steps up the ladder”, said Jennifer Corchado, a 23-year-old biologist. “It’s like three steps up the staircase toward global culture, toward the rest of the world”.

Among the spectators was a large contingent of foreign tourists, for whom seeing Cuba was as novel as seeing the Rolling Stones is for Cubans.

Ken Smith, a 59-year-old retired sailor, and Paul Herold, a 65-year-old retired plumber, sailed to Havana from Key West, Florida on Herold’s yacht.

“This has been one of my life-long dreams, to come to Cuba on my sailboat,” Herold said.

Some Cuban concert-goers said it made them more optimistic about the future of their country.

“This is history”, said Raul Podio, a 22-year-old employee of a state security firm, who was joined by a group of young friends. “I would like to see more groups, for there to be more variety, for more artists to come, because that would mean we are less isolated”.

The band’s Cuba stop ended its “Ole” Latin America tour, which also included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.

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