The Rolling Stones leapt into Cuban history Friday night as they took to the stage with Jumpin’ Jack Flash for a ground-breaking concert.
Mick Jagger, wearing a sequined jacket and raspberry-colored satin shirt, spun and strutted as the Stones unleashed hit after hit at Ciudad Deportiva, a complex of sports fields converted into a venue for the largest rock concert Cuba has ever seen.
The rest of the city was eerily quiet during the concert, which began promptly at 8:30 p.m.
“Hola, Cuba,” said Jagger, “Buenas noches, mi genta de Cuba (Good evening, my Cuban people.)”
Continuing to speak in Spanish, Jagger said, “We’re finally here. I’m sure this will be an unforgettable night.”
Artist Kadir Lopez Nieves was sure of it. “This will remain in people’s minds forever,” he said.
Like rock fans everywhere, the crowd earlier in the day had sprinted to prime stage-front positions when the gates opened more than six hours earlier for the free concert by the Rolling Stones.
It may have been more than 50 years after the rest of the world experienced the British Invasion, but that just made it all the sweeter for Cuban fans, who ranged from millennials to their grandparents’ generation.
“This is the music of my generation. I’ve waited 50 years to see them,” said Leopoldo Galvez Medina, 61, of Varadero.
Galvez, who sported a rainbow-hued wig, a Hard Rock Café cap, and a John Lennon t-shirt, said he’s more of a Beatles fan. “But if I can’t have The Beatles, I’ll take the Rolling Stones.”
Many of the older people in the crowd came of age at a time when rock music, which was associated with the United States, was seen as degenerate yanqui consumerism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, they could only watch pirated albums and videos. But things had begun to relax by the 1990s, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro officially put the anti-rock era to rest in 2000 when he dedicated a life-size bronze statue of John Lennon in a Havana Park.
“Los Rolling represent so much for people of my generation. We’re lovers of Los Rolling and all British music,” said Jorge Acosta Martinez, a 55-year-old restaurant worker as he waved a British flag. “And I have a little bit of British blood.”
The Stones are seen as a ground-breaking band here that pushes the envelope. They were planning one of their most elaborate shows ever for Cuba.
In a YouTube video in Spanish, they saluted their Cuban fans, saying, “We are so excited to be coming to play for you! We’ve performed in many incredible places, but this concert in Havana is going to be an historic event for us. We hope it will be for you, too.”
Even though most Cuban homes don’t have Internet, the Stones ran a Twitter poll to see which of four songs the fans wanted performed at the concert. Their choices: You Got Me Rocking, Get Off of My Cloud, She’s so Cold, and All Down the Line.
There have been other rock shows in Cuba and other British groups have played here, but no British mega-bank like the Stones has ever rocked the island.
If Woodstock was the seminal event for a generation of young American rock fans, then the Stones in Havana may come to represent the same for young Cubans.
But unlike the sex, drugs and rock and roll of Woodstock, the Stones concert was an orderly event with heavy security, lots of organization, and a crowd that pretty much did as it was told. Alcohol was banned from the venue.
After the gates opened at 2 p.m., 6 ½ hours before the concert was to start, a steady stream of people continued to arrive from their jobs and school. The crowd was expected to grow from anywhere to 500,000 to one million.
At houses near Ciudad Deportiva, some put up Stones banners and rented roof tops to camera crews.
“It’s really something historical,” said Hansel Rodriguez, 21, who came with a group of 14 from San Antonio de los Baños and spent the night outside the venue.
They brought a tent, but Rodriguez said, “We’re not thinking about sleeping.”
Some of the young concert goers said the show in a sense was a tribute to their parents’ generation because they never could go to a Rolling Stones show.
Even though only one member of the Stones is under 70, younger Cubans said they still found them fresh.
“I’ve always liked rock and roll,” said Gabriel Orlando Vasquez, 23, who was wearing a black punk rock t-shirt imported from Mexico.
He came to the concert with a group of 40 from the city of Trinidad. They had rented a typical Cuban mode of transportation — a container outfitted with seats on a truck chassis — for more than $500 and spent seven hours on the road to come to the concert.
“I’m here because I really want to be. I really don’t have words for it,” he said.
Stones fans from all over the world converged on Havana for the show, which capped a week when President Barack Obama visited, and the Tampa Bay Rays played the first Major League game in Havana since the Dec. 17, 2014, rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.
There were even fans from South Florida.
Gabriel Urrutia, a marketing executive from Coral Gables, was planning a bachelor party in Havana. When he heard the Stones would be playing, he knew the party had to be this weekend.
“The Rolling Stones are an amazing legend, the biggest band to hit Havana since the revolution,” he said. “This is a great adventure for me and my friends. We’re here for rock and roll.”
A group of Colombians had the honor of being the first in line for the concert. They arrived Thursday, dropped their luggage at a hotel and were at Ciudad Deportiva around 3 p.m.
John Ferro, a publicist and marketer from Cali, Colombia, missed the Stones when they stopped in Colombia on their recent Latin American tour. He had to work. Tickets also had gone very quickly and at $400 to $500 a pop, they were a bit too rich for him, he said.
His group strung up a Colombian flag on the fence surrounding the field and spent the night in two tents.
“I’m a big fan; I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” he said. “This is completely different. It has a different energy.”
In a way, “it helps Cuba become more a part of Latin America and really integrated with the whole world,” he said.
Daniel Gonzalez, 50, joined the Colombian group about 4:30 p.m. Thursday, hoping to become the first Cuban in line.
The concert, he said, will encourage young Cuban musicians and is a gift to the generation of Cubans who were never able to see a concert like this when they were young.
Shortly after the gates opened, he had earned himself a prime spot right in front of the stage. “I spent the night and here I am, the first Cuban to arrive,” he said.