When the Rolling Stones make history on Good Friday by playing a free concert in Havana, I hope Mick and Keith & the gang take a stroll from their hotel to a little park in the leafy diplomatic neighborhood of Vedado, a handful of streets uphill from the famous Malecón. There they will find an unwitting monument to the ultimate futility of censorship: a statue of their old mate John Lennon, sitting on a park bench, in a square that was re-christened "Parque Lennon" in December 2000 by El Jefe himself.
"What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas," Fidel Castro said, obscenely, at the unveiling ceremony. "I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality."
Unsurprisingly for a caudillo whose misgovernance has transformed the onetime capital of the Caribbean into an open-air ruin, Castro left out a few pertinent details. Most notably that he banned the freaking Beatles.
Not far from that park, in February 1998, I attended a hush-hush gathering in a private home with a handful of Cuban longhairs and a middle-aged American lefty who spent her time shuttling between Havana (where she considered herself a constructive critic of the regime) and America (where I once saw her, with a straight face, defend Castro's freedom of the press). What was this semi-clandestine group doing? Listening to, talking about, and singing along with, the Beatles.
The 1960s as we know them did not take place in Cuba, no matter how much western cultural renegades may have fashioned themselves as fellow travelers with Che et al. The Beatles and other globally popular rock acts were banned in the name of defending the Revolution against cultural imperialism. Men daring to show their long hair in public were beaten by cops, shorn of their locks, and thrown in jail. Homosexuals were herded into camps.
This was, to put it mildly, an ahistorical approach to Havana's rich tradition of cultural and artistic exchange. With one of the world's better natural harbors and geographical pole position within the Americas, this port town dominated the commerce and culture of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for centuries after its founding in 1515. Miami was a backwater in comparison until the 1950s. Cuba was the Johnny Appleseed of baseball throughout the Caribbean basin; its writers dominated Latin American literature, and above all, there was the music.
To this day, even after decades of state meddling and economic distress, Havana's musical culture leaves visitors grasping for superlatives. The only place I've ever seen come close is that other Gulf of Mexico-adjacent port town and cultural crossroads, New Orleans. After World War II, as Chris Kjorness pointed out in a terrific 2013 Reason feature, Cuban musical culture was busy taking over the U.S.:
Havana's mambo craze leapt back across the Florida Straits to a willing United States. New York Jazz musicians began incorporating Cuban elements into their music. Pop singers such as Nat "King" Cole began recording with musicians in Cuba and singing in Spanish. Cuban artists such as Beny Moré and Celia Cruz found themselves at the fore of a new, syncretic movement in pan-American popular music.
And decades before cultural observers would enthuse over the "crossover" appeal of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Yankee audiences threw their arms around Cuban percussionist Desi Arnaz, whose mambo band-leader character Ricky Ricardo co-anchored the most popular show on American television, I Love Lucy.
At the height of '50s mambo fever, you would have been laughed out of the room had you predicted that comparatively tiny and impoverished Jamaica would soon become a dominant force in global music, while the Caribbean's longstanding cultural capital of Havana fell into irrelevance and decay. But the rise of communism and its attendant cultural protectionism soon choked off mambo and Cuban creativity at the source, while Jamaica's economic boom and unfettered recording industry uncorked a revolutionary new music called reggae.
Fidel Castro, with his strict rules about how art could be produced and consumed, was effectively standing athwart centuries of cultural history yelling "No más!" But even one of the world's most long-lasting dictatorships eventually proved unable to stand between the people and the music they want. So why did that slowly change?
Competition certainly helped. With musical legends such as Celia Cruz cut off from their homeland (the regime's broadcast ban on Cruz wasn't lifted until 2012), and musicians on the island mostly blocked from travel, Cuban exiles and performers from other Caribbean ports of call popularized a catch-all musical genre that came to be known in the 1970s as salsa. Led by such groups as the Fania All-Stars, salsa demonstrated that the types of music and rhythms and dance still played and enjoyed in Cuba had worldwide appeal.
The Fania All-Stars in 1979 contributed to one of the more bizarre and mostly forgotten musical episodes in modern rock history: the three-day "Havana Jam" at Karl Marx Theater, where officially sanctioned Cuban musicians, top American jazzmen (such as Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, and Jaco Pastorius), and a who's who of late-'70s American burnouts (Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joel) performed for an audience largely composed of apparatchiks and their families.
Chet Flippo's contemporaneous account of Havana Jam for Rolling Stone is an amusing snapshot of a centrally planned–and therefore largely botched–cultural exchange, filled with such wince-inducing anecdotes as Kristofferson dedicating "Living Legend" to "your commander in chief, Fidel"; Americans bitterly complaining that they didn't get to jam with the natives; and the pilot on the outbound flight urging the musicians to "spit on Havana." The audience walked out en masse at the Fania All-Stars (possibly because western salsa music was still banned, and Fania was known to consort in the U.S. with Cuban exiles such as Cruz), and non-Party Cubans rolled their eyes at their own side's contributions. "All Cuban music is old people's music," one local told Flippo. "[I]t is the music of the 1950s. It is as if there is no now. Musically in this country, it is always yesterday."
And yet, as these interviews assembled by the Cuban rock journalist Ernesto Juan Castellanos (who now lives in Florida) attest, Havana Jam was still galvanizing and inspirational for the local musicians lucky enough to attend:
And even with the event's emphasis on old-people music, rock & roll finally did break through, thanks to the perhaps unlikely figure of Billy Joel. More Flippo:
[Joel] closed out the festival with a bang. When he jumped on his piano, the kids in the crowd surged past the guards and really tried to get down. If the Cuban government thought they were keeping rock & roll out of their country, Joel proved them wrong, prompting the American press to dutifully record that he had proved rock & roll can still be subversive.
Communism, like all totalizing political systems, is by definition censorious, often brutally so. When the state owns the means of production, the result is that record companies, radio stations, concert venues, promotional agencies, T-shirt manufacturers, and every last link in the musical economy is controlled by government, which not only has to divvy out goods and access from artificially created scarcity, but also pursue ideological and political aims that are usually at odds with youth culture. And yet music remains a universal human impulse, particularly in traditionally cosmopolitan cities. It is no accident that the simple desire to play and consume the stuff has spurred anti-totalitarian revolts from Prague to Cairo, or that newly freed populations around the globe celebrated their liberation by gorging on such once-verboten western culture as, yes, the Beatles.
In the waning days of the Soviet Union, as the one-sided subsidies to its tropical client state were choked off to a trickle, a Cuban population that had been brought up on fraternal relations with various faraway Slavs begain to strain at Castro's cultural leash. In 1990, while Czechs were celebrating their independence from the Evil Empire by singing and writing graffiti at the now-tolerated Lennon Wall, a group of well-known Cuban musicians attempted to mimic the Beatles' famous "Let it Be" rooftop concert at the Havana Libre Hotel, at which they would play a bunch of Beatles covers. Amazingly, the organizers managed to obtain permissions from several of the necessary bureaucracies, before finally running afoul of the National Committee of the Young Communists League, which deemed the idea "inappropriate."
With the project unraveling, the remaining musicians instead decamped to the very park where you can now visit a bronzed John Lennon. Here's an account of that day from one protagonist:
Early in the afternoon, the park was already full of people, mostly young. You couldn't fit another soul there when the concert began in an almost improvised way. It was one of the most stirring musical events I ever took part in; one of those I recall and love most.
We didn't have much at our disposal in terms of sound equipment. We got our electricity directly from streetlamps and people's houses. We barely had time to rehearse (though, in my opinion, Cuban musicians don't need to rehearse that much for things to work out – and that's exactly what happened). Everything turned out better than we expected. The park was also surrounded by a long cordon of police officers, who ended up singing Yesterday, A Hard Day's Night, Come Together and Let It Be along with us.
Most of the people gathered there belonged to the generation that called itself "the children of Wilhelm Tell." Carlos Varela, accompanied by the rock band Gens, made the gathering even more moving by playing his piece Guillermo Tell, which was almost like a personal anthem for us. The crowds were touched like never before. Once he had finishing singing the famous piece, Varela took the microphone and proposed baptizing the park with the name of John Lennon (its name to this day). Suddenly, the band started playing Hey Jude and the unforgettable concert closed with everyone singing the piece along.
The park and surrounding neighborhood became the focal point for an increasingly assertive Beatle fan base, who would trade memorabilia on the grass and hold impromptu jam sessions. Meanwhile, the 1990s brought two new factors that cracked the pop-culture door open still further: the "Special Period," and rap.
Cuba's Período especial came, not coincidentally, in the same decade that saw a wave of unprecedented peace and prosperity around the rest of the world. What the rest of the international community celebrated as the liberation of imperial withdrawal and cessation of proxy conflict, the Castro regime experienced as the sudden death of its sugar daddy. Clawing desperately at any potential economic green shoot, the Revolution began embracing U.S. dollars, courting overseas investment (particularly in the tourism industry), and allowing (if haphazardly) such non-governmental phenomena as farmer's markets, private restaurants, and rooms for let.
The new throngs of Western tourists (including illegally vacationing Americans, whose passports the Cuban customs officials helpfully declined to stamp) expected to hear their own favorite music, and the government began relaxing its formal and informal bans on various artists and genres. The 1997 appointment of Beatles freak Abriel Prieto as minister of culture sped up the rock reconciliation process.
Meanwhile, the smashing international success of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club—the ultimate tribute to Cuban old-people music—led the government to view home-grown talent as a valuable cash crop, rather than a pre-Revolution curio to be shoved gently aside.
But the local kids weren't clamoring for more mambo. Like angsty n'er-do-wells the world over, they wanted their metal, their punk, and above all, their rap. Starting in 1995, the Cuban government began a long love-hate relationship with hip-hop, by sponsoring an international festival in a Havana barrio. Requiring no more equipment than a human voice, Cuban rap has been a rich source of creativity, overt sexuality, anti-regime metaphor, and the embrace of material aspirations far out of reach of most Cubans. High among the many questions I heard from information-starved locals during my stay in 1998 was, "So, who really killed Tupac?" So integral is hip-hop to contemporary culture that the United States ham-handedly tried to co-opt the genre to spark an anti-Castro movement.
One of the most radical aspects about rock music and its youth-culture offshoots is that it resists all attempts at being manipulated by those who would have it serve instrumental, ideological ends. The individual consumer, not distributor, is the master of interpretation. That unhappy inability to shape consumption is true not just for the censor, but for the creator of the music itself. Nowhere have I seen this paradox plainer than in Havana.
Rage Against the Machine was a rap/metal act that was arguably the most stridently leftist of the popular 1990s alternative bands (they were the lead example of Brian Doherty's 2000 Reason feature on "The strange politics of millionaire rock stars"). Guitarist Tom Morello is a May Day/Occupy Wall Street type who says stuff about murderous Cuban revolutionaries like, "We've considered Che a fifth band member for a long time now, for the simple reason that he exemplifies the integrity and revolutionary ideals to which we aspire." Che is the cover boy of one of Rage's first singles, "Bombtrack." (And lest libertarian music fans prematurely consign Tom Morello to the ideological dustbin of musical history, note that he was one of the key figures lobbying for Rush to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)
I can't think of a less pro-revolutionary human being I've ever met than a teenage kid I spent a lot of time with in Havana 18 years ago. He was a pent-up but ultimately genial type who was always getting into trouble with the law for going to rock shows, slam dancing, and hanging out with the wrong crowd. And the one single thing he wanted most from his new Yanqui friend was a direct transcription of the lyrics to Rage Against the Machine's signature song, the great "Fuck You, I Won't Do What You Tell Me." As I recounted here,
We got stuck on some of the indecipherable words, and didn't have access to the Internet, so he concluded, "They just hate the cops, right?" and I said yes. I tried to tell him that the Rage guys might be the most prominent Marxists working in the record business, but this kid…could not care less. And he was right.
Morello's post-Rage supergroup Audioslave, featuring Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on lead vocals, will be until tomorrow the biggest rock band to ever play in Havana, back in 2005. (They had to spend $1 million of their own money, and were assisted heavily by the U.S. State Department, while treated with suspicion by their Cuban minders.) I have zero doubt that my Rage-loving Castro-hater was somewhere near the front row of that show, having the time of his life.
In a society still dominated by government, the inherent freedom of music will inevitably clash with the practiced overweening of the state. In 2012, the Cuban government cracked down on rap-inflected reggaeton, with the director of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television warning: "We will not play one more rude song, one more base song, one more song with offensive lyrics or videos that attack or denigrate the image of women." Unlike similar finger-wagging in the States, such moralizing in Cuba has the force of law.
And Cubans whose sense of musical freedom extends to criticizing the government openly are still almost certain to suffer. Gorki Águila, lead singer for the punk band Porno Para Ricardo (who Reason TV interviewed in 2009), was released from his latest stint in jail just this Sunday.
Still, messers Jagger and Richards are coming to a much different island than the place that once demonized rock as "the music of the enemy." Cubans have finally been allowed to take their first, heavily censored steps onto the Internet, and are lunging at the chance, regardless of expense. ("For you, the Internet is like water," one of our tour guides told us this January. "For us, it is like caviar.") Whole nightlife ecosystems have sprung up around the La Rampa area, as kids in packs stare into the magic on their iPhones. A fascinating and mysterious audio-visual USB-drive sharing system, called "The Packet," has given Cubans access to all kinds of foreign and domestic movies, music, and television. Relatives from Miami and New Jersey are freer to come and send money, breaching still more walls in Castro's information dam.
And not only can the Stones visit their old pal John in the Parque Lennon, they can walk a few blocks more and check out the Yellow Submarine, a music bar dedicated to all things Fab Four and owned, alas, by the Ministry of Culture.
Better yet, the Glimmer Twins can manage what the recently departed President Barack Obama could not, and take a long, open-ended, and unofficial walk around a marvelous and long-abused city, listening to the endless music and swapping war stories with the locals. Or hook up with Gorki Águila, and go check out some rap-metal.
There are few exceptions to the universal rule that the kids wanna rock. It is true that police states can keep a great city down, but only for so long. Hopefully the sight of some geriatric rockers prancing around to "Start Me Up" will help kick Havana in the direction it's long wanted to go: Back to its rightful home in the center of American culture.
Reason TV's interview with Aguilar: