Few Foreign Rock Bands Play in Cuba

Irina Pino

HAVANA TIMES — It is encouraging for those who love rock music to see foreign bands visit the country and stage the occasional concert. Music is one the arts closest to human feelings and one of the things that unites people the most. That was something the Beatles used to say often.

Rock bands from English-speaking countries, however, don’t often come over for a visit, even though they would be more than welcome here. I recall when Rick Wakeman, the keyboard player for the progressive rock band Yes who later went solo, was in Cuba. He is the composer of Arthur (the well-known piece used for the opening sequence of Historia del Cine, a Cuban television program).

The musician came with some of the members of Yes and new partners, including the son of one of them. They played songs by Yes in Havana’s Karl Marx theater. The new band was called N.E.R.E (New English Rock Ensemble). They also performed at the city’s Anti-Imperialist Bandstand, located right beside Havana’s Malecon ocean-drive.

One of the things that caught my eye was that he was surrounded by a semicircle of key instruments (synthesizers, an electronic piano an electric organ) and that he would play them alternatively, revealing the mastery and virtuosity he has maintained for years. He wore a multi-colored, bright outfit that was half raspberry-color. He had blond, straight hair that was almost white.

All of us felt the magic of that legendary figure and could hardly believe he was there, that he was right in front of us performing those classic numbers. Some listened in ecstasy, while others gesticulated wildly with their arms. The most daring wore hippy costumes which recalled the 60s and 70s. A kid wearing a T-shirt with the English flag would lift it up and kiss it with emotion.

With Air Supply, many were taken back to their high school years and first romances. Couples would embrace and kiss passionately, becoming romantic thanks to the music.

At one point during the show, the lead singer invited the audience to join him and sing one of those classic pieces, without realizing they know the music but didn’t know the lyrics.

We, the fans, are constantly hoping that classic rock bands will come play in Cuba. It is ironic, perhaps a dirty trick destiny is playing us, that musicians such as Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, should come to our country as tourists and remain in utter anonymity here.

A friend told me that, if Aeorosmith ever decided to play at Havana’s Revolution Square, so many people would attend that she would not be able to take her longed-for picture next to Steven Tyler.

6 thoughts on “Few Foreign Rock Bands Play in Cuba

  • I’ve got no connection to any youth organization (or any organization in Cuba for that matter). My wife and I were tourists on our first visit to Cuba, our hotel was not too far from the concert, and we just went over to check it out. There weren’t even any chairs in the area we were in, just a huge swath of standing concert goers. We were able to just wander through the crowd uncontested. If there was a closed-off reserved section, it must have been much closer to the stage. Perhaps right in the middle where the runway jutted out?

  • Crowd estimates of over 1 million people are exaggerated. If you were closer than 150 feet to the stage you were definitely among the vetted youth organizations. While it is not impossible that you were that close and just from the general public, it is unusual. I am told the same tactic was used for the papal visits. In free countries the seating or space in front of the stage is reserved for people who pay the most money or are the VIPs. In effect the same vetting but done by the marketplace. Finally, I suspect you were not aware of the high number of plainclothes security in the crowd. At ALL large public events, the Castros saturate the crowds with plainclothes security. They were there, you were just oblivious to them.

  • I was at the second Peace Concert in 2009. If anything, I was astounded by the lack of security and control. It was by far the biggest crowd I’d ever been in (over 1 million people by some estimates), and nobody was telling anyone what to do or where to go. The entire Revolution Square was a free for all. Crowd control wasn’t needed either though, as everyone was respectful of one another as people just went where they wanted to go, and did what they wanted to do. I was definitely a lot closer than 150 feet, and nobody vetted me and my wife.

    It was a lot like the Havana book fair in that there was this massive throng of people, yet it wasn’t a problem of any kind. Security people were there, but they just stood way off to the side and observed.

  • That’s an interesting anecdote. It makes me wonder how the lefty poser band Rage Against the Machine reacted to the scores of police and heavy handed political direction when they played Havana. I mean, don’t they sing about speaking truth the power and fighting The Man? Weren’t they disturbed by the cognitive dissonance? No worries, I’m sure the millionaire Marxist Tom Morello drew upon his vast stores of hypocrisy to get through the day.

  • You are quite right. I am friends with one of the producers that was involved in the ‘Paz Sin Fronteras’ concert headlined by the Colombian singer Juanes that took place in Havana several years ago. He says that he still has nightmares from that experience. They gave a free concert in Havana but sold the Pay-TV rights to several cable companies in the US and Spain. As a result they had to hold the concert in the hottest part of the day in Havana which allowed the concert to be shown live in Spain at night. The Castro government was so uptight about image that the first 150 feet from the stage was populated by youth groups veted by regime. Camera shots of the crowd could only be at a distance. No political signs, and no unscripted crowd comments. Every performer was told to be “respectful” while on stage. According to my friend, there were so many security police backstage and in the crowd that the concert felt like a political rally and not a rock concert. Nonetheless, Cubans, who are so starved for concerts like this endured the heat and the security and seemed to have a great time. My buddy says it was the only rock concert he has ever produced, and he has done hundreds, where there no cloud of marijuana smoke wafting over the crowd.

  • Playing concerts is the biggest money making activity for professional musicians these days. Selling recordings, CD’s or downloads from iTunes, is less lucrative. For example, in 2009-2010 the Irish band U2 played 110 concerts in their world tour. Their gross income was over $736 million. Average ticket prices were US $112. Subtracting costs, they still made a bundle.

    So any musician who decides to perform in Cuba is basically doing it for free. There is no way the Cuban people could afford the ticket prices charged elsewhere.

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