Rolling Stones stun with free concert in Cuba

Rolling Stones give historic concert in Cuba signifying opening of country to the world

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Keith Richards (R), Mick Jagger (C) and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones perform a free outdoor concert at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana sports complex in Havana, Cuba March 25, 2016.

Cuba had never seen the Rolling Stones before, and after Mick Jagger rocked and seduced hundreds of thousands in Havana on Friday, the communist island is likely never to be quite the same again.

A crowd flowed across the Cuban capital's Ciudad Deportiva, a huge sports complex with a capacity of 450,000.

The human tide then spilled further into the streets, some even standing thick on neighbouring rooftops.

When fans raised their phones and cameras to get snapshots of Jagger strutting across the giant stage, the flashes looked like a new galaxy.

This was the British superstars' first concert in Cuba. It was the first gig, in fact, by any rock band of such stature, with a production featuring giant video screens and a sound system that got the crowd jumping, arms swaying, to classic after classic, from "Angie" to "Paint it Black."

But the night was about much more than music.

Friday's free concert turned history on its head, in a country where just a few decades ago, all rock music was considered part of an enemy plot against the communist state.

"We know that years ago it was difficult to hear our music in Cuba, but here we are playing," Jagger said in Spanish, prompting huge cheers.

"I think that truly the times are changing," he said. "That's true, isn't it?"

Winning Cuba over

The crowd erupted during songs like "Out of Control" and "Satisfaction," with people of all ages singing along to the choruses and jumping up and down in rhythm to thunderous guitar solos.

"It's so amazing that they came to Cuba and united such a variety of people, young and old," said Andres Enda, 24, a dancer.

"Change is already coming - the fact they're here shows that."

Jagger, 72, Keith Richards, 72, Charlie Watts, 74, and Ronnie Wood, 68, flew in late Thursday, just two days after US President Barack Obama ended his historic visit aimed at overcoming more than a half-century of US-Cuban hostility.

The twin events added up to a tumultuous week for Cuba, run by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul ever since their guerrilla army deposed a hated US-backed regime in 1959.

Although Jagger's comment about changing times was his only overtly political statement, the whole concert seemed like a massive declaration by Cubans that they want to join the world.

Flags from many countries floated above the crowd - Cubans young and old sang along in English, and the adoration for the aging rockers seemed to be about more than just the enjoying good music.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, rock 'n roll was discouraged to varying degrees in Cuba, leading during the most repressive years to clandestine listening sessions and an underground trade in smuggled recordings.

Those restrictions have gone, but the ban on political and media freedoms has not, while the ramshackle communist economy and decades-old US economic embargo have forced many into lives of stiflingly few opportunities.

The crowd danced, swayed and for one long spell joined Jagger in intense back-and-forth singing, seemingly sending a message that the time has come to move on.

High tech, low tech

"Mick Jagger showed his optimism here," said Sofia Fernandez de Cossio, 19. "There's a lot of optimism now. You notice it in the country. People are more positive."

The Stones' show was among the most ambitious ever staged in Cuba, requiring 61 sea containers and a packed Boeing 747 filled with gear and equipment.

It was not clear whether many more big bands would be coming soon, however.

The island woefully lacks infrastructure, remains under the US embargo, and most Cubans are in any case too poor to pay regular concert ticket prices.

Cuban police were out in large numbers, but remained discreetly to the sides during the concert. Many fans ignored an alcohol ban, bringing in bottles of rum to drink, as well as puffing on fat Cuban cigars.

While the Stones' technical teams were operating state-of-the-art light and sound systems, the Cuban contribution was tellingly basic.

As nearly everywhere else in Cuba, there was no wi-fi signal at the sports complex, and as soon as the crowds grew, cellphones went dead. Metal cabins positioned over ordinary street drains served as public toilets.

After the show, the group tweeted: "Thank you Cuba for an incredible, unforgettable show! It was wonderful to see all of you!" - a message also sent in Spanish - with the hashtag #StonesCuba.

The Stones had called on fans via Twitter to vote for one of four songs - "Get Off My Cloud," "All Down the Line," "She's So Cold," and "You Got Me Rocking" - to be included on the playlist.

But few in Cuba, where Internet is not widely available, would have been able to even see Twitter, let alone vote.