Inside The Rolling Stones’ Historic Free Concert in Cuba

There was something endearing — and a bit cheeky — about Mick Jagger getting the crowd of an estimated 500,000 Cubans to sing “you can’t always get what you want” in Havana Friday night (March 25) for The Rolling Stones’ first-ever concert in the country.

Under Cuba’s Communist government, the people can’t get what they want, although now they can have cell phones and are able to own “casa particular” and small businesses, and even property. Things are slowly changing.

The Rolling Stones in Havana: See Photos From the Historic Free Concert

That change includes President Raul Castro allowing The Rolling Stones to perform in Cuba for the first time in the rock band’s 54-year career. Although the group’s members have long been vacationing in Cuba, The Rolling Stones’ music had previously been deemed “ideological deviation.”

As previously reported, Rolling Stones manager Joyce Smyth and AEG Asia/Concerts West worked with the Cuban government to make the show happen. The Cuban government still has say over what the country’s people can listen to. For example, the genre reggaeton was banned in this decade because of its suggestiveness, particularly in music videos.

The Rolling Stones’ open-air concert at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana, a massive sports complex that hosts baseball, football and other events, was Cuba’s first by a British rock group. The government-controlled Communist country is slowing loosening restrictions on its people.

“It’s so very special that Obama makes the border open for the economic, for the political thing, and Mick Jagger and his friends, they open it maybe for the music. So it’s a very important week here in Cuba,” Ulrich Schröder from Germany told Billboard.

The 66-year-old, easy-to-spot diehard, who marked his 181st Stones show in Cuba, runs a Stones fan museum in Hamburg and is decked out in top hat and tails adorned with tongues, lips patches and badges, right down to pant legs striped with the famed logo. He flew in just for the show.

Staging The Rolling Stones’ Historic Havana Concert: ‘We Have To Bring In Literally Everything’

The concert appeared to be like any other outdoor music festival, except security was more lax — people strolled, didn’t run or jostle into the grounds. Concert-goers opened umbrellas to shield the sunrays (banned at most North American venues) and drank alcohol they brought themselves (also a big no-no in North America). But there were also no food concession stands and, glaringly, no merchandise.

Instead, some people made their own shirts. The Stones camp also tossed out a small supply of white T-shirts emblazoned with the Cuba poster logo. Exclusive Havana, Cuba, merchandise is now for sale online from the Stones’ web store.

The average Cuban makes $20 per month but gets subsidized education, healthcare, food basics and toiletries. Music education is also free. The Cubans love their música — but mostly Latin styles, like son and salsa, as well as jazz. Internet is slow, of dial-up speed, so the Cuban people don’t get to check out new acts on YouTube videos or download music. And most households don’t have Wi-Fi, so Latin music is their first love.

On Thursday (March 24), the British Embassy in Havana reportedly hosted a private reception for about 200 people; many Cuban musicians, with The Rolling Stones as the guests of honor. No photos were allowed but the band stayed a couple of hours and chatted with everyone, providing words of encouragement to their fellow players.

The Stones have also spearheaded a charity initiative in which much-needed musical instruments and gear are being donated by major suppliers to Cuban musicians of all genres. Donors include the Gibson Foundation, Vic Firth, RS Berkeley, Pearl, Zildjian, Gretsch, Latin Percussion, Roland and BOSS, with additional assistance coming from the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation.

Rolling Stones in Cuba: See the Official Poster

While the Stones visit has nothing to do with Obama’s life-changing (for the Cubans) declaration on Dec. 17, 2014, that the U.S. would lift the embargo after more than 50 years of sanctions — and became the first sitting U.S. President in almost 90 years to visit the country. His two day visit last Sunday prompted the Stones to push their show to the March 25 — it does point to a brighter future for Cubans, where they can enjoy new freedoms, such as tour stops by major Western acts.

Rock band Audioslave played a massive free concert in Havana in 2005 that was filmed for DVD, and electronic act Major Lazer played the city just recently. Colombian star Juanes performed to 1 million people in 2009, but the Stones is the biggest by a British rock band.

The Stones concert was filmed for an Eagle Rock release by director Paul Dugdate, who handled the band’s Sweet Summer Sun — Hyde Park Live DVD in 2013. Dubbed Concert for Amity, it is produced by JA Digital.


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