The Rolling Stones Live in Havana – Cuba 25.03.2016

Cuba’s revolutionary regime and the Rolling Stones have one thing in common: unexpected longevity.

The left-wing government has defied expectations by outlasting the Soviet Union, its former backer, by decades. The Rolling Stones, a 54-year-old unruly rock ‘n’ roll act, still wow crowds with impressive vim for septuagenarians.

These two worlds collide in Havana, Cuba’s capital, on Friday, with the British band’s debut there. The show takes place against a backdrop of slowly improving relations between the US and Cuba, former Cold War enemies.

“What strikes me is the longevity of these guys,” Bill Janovitz, author of Rocks Off, a book about the Stones, told Al Jazeera.

“They’re well into their 70s, beyond retirement age for most people. Not only are they still out there, but they’re not taking the easy route. They’re inserting themselves into a worldwide political conversation.”

Sir Mick Jagger, the band’s raucous front man, was a schoolboy in 1953, when Fidel and Raul Castro began a rebellion that eventually deposed the Caribbean Island’s austere US-backed government and launched socialist reforms.

In 1962, when the Stones formed in London, the United States imposed a full trade embargo on Cuba and the world approached nuclear Armageddon as Moscow and Washington rowed over Soviet missiles on the island. Decades of animosity ensued.

‘Cultured country’

This week’s visit of President Barack Obama continued a US-Cuba detente that began 15 months ago and has seen Washington ease restrictions by opening up flights and some trade to an island only 145km off Florida’s coast.

As Obama toured Havana, a crew of 140 Stones employees and some 80 Cubans were setting the stage at the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana sports complex to welcome hundreds of thousands of fans to the show, called the Concert for Amity.

Speaking with reporters, the band’s production manager Dale “Opie” Skjerseth, joked that Obama was their “opening act”.

The gig was a late addition to the group’s Latin American tour, which kicked off last month in Santiago, Chile. Cubans dodge the 0 ticket prices paid elsewhere thanks to free entry, on a first-come, first-served basis.

The band used 61 shipping containers to import an estimated 500 tonnes of equipment, such as the stage, speakers, lights and video screens, Skjerseth said. A Boeing 747 arrived from Mexico last week carrying the last of the gear, he added.

The Stones are not strangers to the Caribbean. They recorded albums in Montserrat, Jagger is understood to own a villa in Mustique and was married to the rights campaigner and former actress Bianca Jagger, from nearby Nicaragua.

Their sound draws on many styles, from rhythm and blues to reggae and soul. Their 1964 cover version of Not Fade Away, which opens with Jagger shaking maracas, features echoes of Afro-Cuban music.

US media outlets present the gig as the first world-renowned rock act to reach an isolated nation of some one million culture-starved Cubans. For Cuba-watcher James Early, this is typical “US-centric arrogance and chauvinism”.

Cubans are erudite and world-class in music, ballet and poetry, Early said.

“I don’t mean to detract from the Rolling Stones, which will be a great attraction for Cuba, but to suggest that somehow this is opening the curtain of universal culture for them is just way beyond the pale,” Early, a former Smithsonian Institution director, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a very cultured country.”

Though human rights groups have big gripes about Cuba – from political prisoners to web blocking – the communist-run island has not sought to banish the music of foreign bands, including the Stones, since the early days of the revolution.

Former president Fidel Castro turned out to watch the Manic Street Preachers, a Welsh band, at the Teatro Karl Marx in 2001. In 1979, during a previous US-Cuba rapprochement, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joel played the same venue.

A statue of John Lennon, the former Beatle and peacenik, was unveiled in a Havana park in 2000.

Although the Stones gig may go down in history as the biggest rock concert to be staged in Cuba, Bernardo Navarro, a 39-year-old Cuban-American, does not foresee major convulsions to life for its Spanish-speaking people.

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