Fifty years late, the British Invasion is coming to Cuba
As lead singer Lizzy and her band, the Sweet Lizzy Project, pound into Proud Mary on a Saturday night, the crowd begins to chant “Rollin,’ Rollin’, Rollin’ ” as if it were 1969.
This is old school rock-and-roll, retro onda, in a Beatles-themed club called Submarino Amarillo — Yellow Submarine — and it draws a clientele both young and old who sometimes dress in hot pants, tie-dye T-shirts and other ’60s fads to celebrate the music.
The irony of it is that when many of the younger crowd’s parents were coming of age in the 1960s and ’70s they couldn’t hope to find a club like this. The newer generation on Cuban rock fans can get a slice of the ’60s when the Rolling Stones play a free concert on Friday in Havana in front of at least a half-million spectators.
“Rock music was prohibited,” said Nancy Torres, 57, drawing out the syllables on prohibido. Now she and her husband Alfredo are big fans of the club.
He even likes to go in the afternoons to nurse a beer when videos of Kiss, the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones are playing. “I never saw any of these videos when I was young,” he said.
Torres remembers having a single Beatles vinyl, The White Album. It was a Cuban copy called a placa and she listened to it at home with doors closed.
These placas were often recorded over records the younger generation didn’t much like that were pirated from parents’ collections.
Journalist José Alejandro Rodríguez remembers hearing I Want to Hold Your Hand for the first time when one of the young people at a quince party put Meet the Beatles on a record player.
It was almost as if a UFO had landed and the young guests were mesmerized. But then an adult removed the record under the pretext it was “imperialist music,” recalled Rodríguez .
“It was the first censorship of the Beatles that I witnessed,” he wrote in a column for Juventud Rebelde, a Communist youth newspaper.
In that era people used to say roqueros were very extravagant, had long hair, didn’t bathe, were freaky.
Guitar player Luis Gustavo Mas
Back then, many in Cuba associated rock with American music — and at the height of the Cold War, it was considered degenerate and capitalist by the Communist government.
By the mid-1990s when Luis Gustavo Mas, 36, was a pre-university student, Cuba had become more tolerant of the music it once considered so decadent.
Not that everyone trusted rockers. “In that era people used to say roqueros were very extravagant, had long hair, didn’t bathe, were freaky,” said Mas, who now plays guitar with the Eddy Escobar group. But he said he was never discriminated against for listening to or playing rock.
Rock was no longer underground the way it was during the first decades of the revolution, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself sealed the deal on Dec. 8, 2000, when, dressed in his typical military garb, he dedicated a life-sized bronze statue of John Lennon in a park across the street from the Submarino Amarillo.
As All You Need is Love played in the background, Castro, who had decided Lennon was a revolutionary after all, unveiled the statue.
“What makes him great in my eyes is his thinking, his ideas,” Castro said. “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.”
The statue of Lennon has become a tourist attraction as visitors sit on a bench next to the Lennon figure to have their pictures taken. But so many people were snatching his distinctive eyeglasses that now 78-year-old Luis Albert Duquesne watches over them and put them on for photos for a small fee.
He also keeps a small pouch full of granny glasses that visitors can use for pictures.
Here in Cuba we do know what British rock is.
Guille Vilar, musical historian, co-creator of the Submarino Amarillo.
Eleven years after John Lennon’s statue appeared in the park, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture opened the Submarino Amarillo. Officially, it’s a cultural center, but it’s really a club offering beer, mojitos and snacks along with live bands and videos.
The Submarino Amarillo is a bright yellow beacon on the corner of 17th Street between 4th and 6th Avenues.
Patrons walk down a flight of stairs to the sub-street club and pay a cover of 5 convertible pesos, a little more than $5, for a blast into the past.
“We’re open seven days a week and we have clients of various generations here,’’ said Carel Yanes, the manager. He diplomatically acknowledges that the music now played at the club “wasn’t possible a generation ago.”
Foreigners who wander into the club say they never expected to find a place like this in the land of reggaeton, rumba and salsa. The bands often sing in English and the Fab Four’s lyrics — in English — cover the walls.
The night Lizzy rocked it, a middle-aged waiter bopped in time to the music as he refilled ice buckets and collected empty beer bottles, a twenty-something with a man-bun pumped his fist to the music, and a Mick Jagger look-alike took to the dance floor.
You might think the Cuban audience wouldn’t know the English lyrics, but they most certainly do and often sing along to their favorites.
Although the Yellow Submarine is a Beatles-themed club, it doesn’t discriminate and plays a wide variety of rock.
On Wednesday the Submarino Amarillo held a conversation about British rock.
It was part of Brit Week, a series of events all over Havana focusing on British music that is jointly sponsored by the British Embassy and Cuba’s Ministry of Culture.
As part of the event, the Eddy Escobar Group covered British rock songs.
Even though back in the day rock was associated with the United States, “we knew British groups were different from American groups; they sounded different,” said Guille Vilar, a musical historian and one of the co-creators of the Submarino Amarillo. “Here in Cuba we do know what British rock is.”
That’s a good thing because the Stones, fresh off their Latin American tour, are planning what could be their biggest concert ever at Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva.
Not only will the free concert be their grandest production ever, but they might even top a record of 1 million fans set at a Rio de Janeiro concert.
Rock bands have played in Cuba before, but “this is the first British mega band to play here,” said Tim Cole, the British ambassador to Cuba.
“Cuban rock fans are really excited about it,” he said. Cole expects Cubans from all over the island at Ciudad Deportiva.
Coming on the heels of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba and the first baseball game featuring a Major League team since the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, the Stones’ concert will cap a week when change has been in the air.
“The Stones represent opening up to the world in the same way the visit of President Obama did,” said Cole.
“Rock-and-roll is always a scream for hope, a music full of expectations,” said Mas. “The Rolling Stones are a signature band … with years on the scene. They are the biggest band to come to Cuba and I think the biggest that will ever come.”
The Rolling Stones in Cuba
▪ The free concert will be held Friday at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana
▪ As many as 500,000 people are expected to attend, and with people watching from side streets, attendance could reach 1 million
▪ The band used 61 sea containers and a packed 747 to bring all the gear — lights, video screens, speakers, the stage — to Havana
▪ 140 Rolling Stones employees and 80 Cubans are working to get the grounds ready