Hundreds of thousands of Cubans cheered and sang with the Rolling Stones in Havana on Friday 25 March 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.
Organisers 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.