Pleased to meet you: Rolling Stones treat Cuba to spectacular and historic gig

Finally, the times are changing,” proclaimed Mick Jagger to a vast, euphoric crowd in Havana on Friday night, as the Rolling Stones completed their Latin American tour with a concert that may well prove a pivotal moment for a generation of Cubans.

Hundreds of thousands thronged to the Ciudad Deportiva stadium to see the British rockers, who follow hard on the heels of a visit by Barack Obama, in a week that few on this island are ever likely to forget.

Amid growing hopes of reform and further opening, the Stones frontman emphasised how far the country has already come in cultural opening from the 1960s, when their songs were considered ideologically divergent.

“We know that years ago, it was difficult to listen to our music in Cuba, but now here we are in your beautiful land,” Jagger said in Spanish. “I think that, finally, the times are changing. That’s true, no?” The crowd roared their agreement.

Rolling Stones fans wait for the start of the free concert in Havana.
Rolling Stones fans wait for the start of the free concert in Havana. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It was the closest to an overt political statement in the two-hour concert, which some democracy activists feared would be used by the one-party state to perpetuate its hold on power.

The Stones – who long ago made the transition from youth rebels to rock aristocrats – avoided any hint of criticism of the current government of Raúl Castro. Instead, they largely let their music – and spectacular special effects – speak for themselves about the benefits of greater engagement. Their fans had still bigger expectations.

“This will be one of those weeks that people will use to measure other events. In the future, they’ll ask, was it before or after the Stones played,” predicted Tania Livia, a businesswoman attending the concert. “This is the biggest moment in my life,” said tattooed club owner Ferrer Castillo, who had travelled 200km by bus and taxi to see his heroes.

“For me, this is a historical moment on the same level as Nelson Mandela walking out of prison,” suggested Francoisse Fraissenet, a French woman who said she has seen at least 25 gigs by the Stones. Another fan from Brazil pushed her way to the front to ask: “Where do I get a concert T-shirt?”, but it wasn’t that kind of gig.

This was a free concert, rushed into being in just a few months. There were no seats, no refreshment kiosks and only a handful of rusty metal portable toilets. With no turnstiles, estimates of the crowd size were largely guesswork. Some said 200,000. Others more than half a million. All this observer can report is that it was dense, stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see, and was extremely good natured.

Rolling Stones fans sporting US and Cuban flags at the Ciudad Deportiva ground.
Rolling Stones fans sporting US and Cuban flags at the Ciudad Deportiva ground. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When it came to the staging, no expense was spared. Even before the music started, the lighting and video displays were breathaking. While many Cubans have to make do with small, old grainy televisions in their homes, here they were suddenly in a field staring up at giant high-definition screens.

Considering the paucity of time that the team had to unpack the 85 container loads of equipment, set up the stage and erect the lighting rigs and screen towers, there were remarkably few glitches. Bureaucracy did not appear to have slowed the process, though shortly before the start an overdiligent security guard briefly denied entry to Gregory Elias – the businessman who bankrolled the concert – because he did not have a backstage wristband.

Celebrity-spotters had a field day in the VIP section, where supermodel Naomi Campbell rubbed shoulders with actor Richard Gere and billionaire Warren Buffett. A separate section for Cuba’s leading figures was said to include at least two ministers, several members of the Castro family (though not, it seems, Fidel or Raúl) and the five prisoners released by the US in 2014, when the two former cold war adversaries announced they would restore relations.

A glowing sea of mobile phone lights greeted the arrival of the band on stage for the opening song – Jumpin’ Jack Flash – with tens of thousands trying to record the moment for posterity. It was a moment that sent a shiver down this correspondent’s spine – not for the last time during the concert. This was the band’s first show in Cuba and the finale of their tour. Given the recent deaths of David Bowie and Lemmy, it was impossible not to wonder whether it might also be the last they will ever play together.

Jagger, though, gave no sign that he will ever let up. The band’s frontman was a whirl of energy – strutting like a peacock one moment, shivering like a man possessed the next, he played the audience as if it were just another instrument. Between almost every song, he buttered up the crowd, sharing anecdotes in Spanish and declaring: “I knew this would be an unforgettable night”.

Playing on the host nation’s recent history, Jagger introduced the Stones’ guitarist and drummer as “Revolutionary Ronnie Wood” and “Charlie Che Watts”, then he gave up the microphone for “mi compadre Keith Richards” who stuck to English, but also appeared in his element. “Havana, Cuba and the Rolling Stones. This is amazing, It’s really good to be here,” he drawled. “I’m gonna live here … maybe.”

Hundreds of thousands of fans listened to the Rolling Stones play for the first time – the music was once banned by the Cuban government.
Hundreds of thousands of fans listened to the Rolling Stones play for the first time – the music was once banned by the Cuban government. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Reflecting just how open Cuba has become to foreign visitors, many in the the audience had flown in from overseas. Several union jacks were held aloft, as was the stars and stripes and the banners of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Canada and Panama. However, it was the Cuban flag that Jagger – the diplomat as well as the showman – draped over his shoulders to loud applause during Brown Sugar .

Although many in the predominantly young audience struggled before the gig to name a single Stones track, they made up for a lack of knowledge with an abundance of enthusiasm. Angie, Paint It Black, Honky Tonk Women, Gimme Shelter, Start Me Up and Brown Sugar were met with rapturous applause.

There was awe for Sympathy for the Devil when Jagger revealed himself as the prince of darkness, haunting the stage and possessing the audience while serpents, pentagrams and other satanic symbols flashed across black screens in blood red. And there was surrender during a superb, 20-25 minute version of Midnight Rambler, when Jagger’s manic dancing was reminiscent of Iggy Pop, and his command of the crowd brought to mind a gospel preacher. In between, Wood and Richards took it in turns to have what looked very much like mutually gratifying guitar sex with the audience. “Rolling, Rolling, Rolling,” chanted the crowd.

By the time the British rockers wrapped up the two-hour show with Satisfaction, the sports field had become a mosh pit, with hundreds of thousands of people jumping up and down right up until the final crash of Watts’s drum stick. Then, bows, smiles (even from Watts, who’d been impassive throughout), more bows, more smiles and a final “Buenas noches” from Jagger before the band wandered off stage together for the first and last time in Havana.

The afterglow lasted long after they left. “It was amazing. Awesome,” said Sofia Fernandez de Cossío, an art history student at the University of Havana, who said that even a year ago it was impossible to imagine such a week ending with a concert by the Stones. “How much better could it get? Only if the Beatles were able get together and come, but that’s impossible,” she said. “People will be talking about this for weeks.”

Jagger’s comments, she said, showed his optimism at the change now taking place on the island. “You can notice it in our country. It’s weird, but everyone knows that something good is going to happen sooner or later.” Pressed on what that might mean, she talked of economic reform and further improvements in ties with the US. There was no mention of politics and an end to the one-party state.

Rolling Stones Havana gig
‘In the future, they’ll ask: “Was it before or after the Stones played?”’ Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There was wariness too about overstating the significance of the past week. “We have already changed. The fact that the Stones are here is proof of that,” said dancer Andres Enoa. “But a lot of the change has been superficial. It puts Cuba at the top of the news every day but there is still so much going on underneath that is not being dealt with.”

For democracy activists, this has been the problem with the visits by Obama and the Stones. “They should be aware that their performance is being used by a totalitarian regime as a symbol of an opening that isn’t really taking place,” said Rosa María Paya, who is campaigning for a plebiscite that would allow the Cuban people to decide their own fate. She said at least one activist punk musician had been detained before the concert and another was being watched by police. “I don’t put my hope in Mick Jagger. He should have made a statement of solidarity.”

That there was nothing explicitly critical from the band was of little surprise to those who helped organise the show. This was always intended as a feelgood event. The good vibes, it is hoped, will create their own momentum.

“It’s all about the future, not the past,” said Tim Cole, the British ambassador in Havana. “As Mick said, ‘the times are changing.”


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