Rock legends the Rolling Stones strutted and sang before hundreds of thousands of jubilant Cubans in Havana on Friday, delivering a historic concert in a country that once forced fans to listen to their favorite music behind closed doors.
“Hello Havana! Good evening to my Cuban people,” lead singer Mick Jagger shouted in Spanish as he launched into the band’s classic “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
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Coming two days after Barack Obama finished the first trip to Cuba by a US president in nearly 90 years, Friday night’s free rock concert, called the biggest in the country’s history, sought to cement the communist-run island’s opening to the world.
“After today I can die,” said night watchman Joaquin Ortiz. The 62-year-old said he’s been a huge rock fan since he was a teenager in the 1960s, when Cuba’s communist government frowned on US and British bands and he had to hide his Beatles and Stones albums in covers borrowed from albums of appropriately revolutionary Cuban groups. “This is like my last wish, seeing the Rolling Stones.”
Groups of people had slept overnight outside the Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, where a massive stage had been set up for the concert, and by the time the concert began roughly a half million people had gathered.
Spectators held up signs reading “Republica Stones” and “We Love The Stones,” while t-shirts with the band’s trademark lips and tongue were common. Security was heavy, provided by private guards in yellow jackets and hundreds of Cuban police and black-clad Interior Ministry officers in black jumpsuits.
Jagger, wearing a silver jacket and red wine-colored shirt, belted out standards like “Angie” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It).”
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.
Tara Mascarenhas, a 43-year-old business consultant from Chelsea, Quebec, said David Bowie’s recent death inspired her to catch the Rolling Stones while they were still playing, and the historic nature of the Cuba concert provided an extra push.
“It’ll be quite nice to be able to see Keith (Richards) in the flesh,” she said, adding that she decided to come with only two weeks’ notice. “It’s a slightly crazy opportunity.”
On arrival in Havana, Jagger indirectly referenced the recent changes in Cuba. Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba last year and called for the two countries to move toward full normalization in order to end the legacy of the Cold War and prompt Cuba to engage in more reforms of its single-party system and centrally controlled economy.
“Obviously something has happened in the last few years,” Jagger told reporters at Jose Marti International Airport. “So, time changes everything… we are very pleased to be here and I’m sure it’s going to be a great show.”
Cuban musicologist Joaquin Borges characterized the event as “very important,” saying it would be the biggest rock concert of its kind ever on the island. He predicted that it would encourage “other groups of that stature to come and perform.”
“It’s a dream that has arrived for the Cuban people,” said radio host and rock music specialist Juanito Camacho. “A lot of young Cubans will like the music but it will also satisfy the longings of older generations.”
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 private plane carried the four British rockers, family members and about 60 technical workers to manage the huge amount of gear brought to the island for the concert, including seven huge screens and 1,300 kilograms (2,866 pounds) of sound equipment.
“We have performed in many special places during our long career, but this show in Havana will be a milestone for us, and, we hope, for all our friends in Cuba, too,” the band said in a statement released before their arrival Thursday night.
In the heat of Cuba’s revolution from the 1960s to the 1980s, foreign bands such as The Rolling Stones were considered subversive and blocked from the radio. Rock music such as the Stones’ wasn’t officially prohibited in public, but it was disapproved of. Cubans listened to their music in secret, passing records from hand to hand.
The band’s Cuba stop ends its “Ole” Latin America tour, which also included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.
At the Havana concert, Smith, who sailed to Havana from Key West with Herold, said the event provided inspiration to come to Cuba after years of thinking about it and he didn’t regret it.
“We’ve just been taken for a ride in a ’57 Pontiac. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.