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Start them up: The Rolling Stones play historic free concert in Cuba

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones perform in the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana in Cuba on Friday, March 25, 2016.
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones perform in the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana in Cuba on Friday, March 25, 2016. TNS

A few days after President BarackObama’s historic visit to Cuba, an arguably bigger rock star played Havana.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans flocked to a massive sports complex in central Havana on Friday night for a free Rolling Stones concert that some compared to Woodstock.

A festival atmosphere prevailed at the show, with thousands sprawling on blankets in the grass and some stripping off layers of clothing in the humid Havana night. Many climbed fences and crowded onto nearby rooftops to get a better view of Mick Jagger and his bandmates, who kicked off the show with a booming version of “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” one of the band’s earliest hits.

“We all wanted to be at Woodstock,” said Nilda Dominguez, 60, who said that as a teenager she struggled to get her hands on music by the Stones and other bands because Cuba’s revolutionary leaders looked down on rock music. “Tonight is the best.”

Jagger, who wore a sparkly pink jacket over a tight black T-shirt, alluded repeatedly to the historical significance of the concert, at one point looking out at the roaring crowd during a break in the music and pulling the microphone up to his pillowy lips.

“We know in the past it wasn’t easy to hear our music in Cuba,” Jagger said in halting Spanish tinged with a cockney accent. “I think that finally the times are changing.”

The concert capped a week of events in Cuba that previously would have seemed impossible, including reconciliation talks between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, who on Tuesday appeared side-by-side at a baseball game featuring both Cuban and American teams.

The concert itself, and the makeup of the crowd, hinted at the changes that are happening quickly here. Along with Cubans, there were thousands of foreigners, part of a wave of new tourism to the island.

“We’ve performed in many incredible places, but this concert in Havana is going to be a historic event for us,” Jagger said in Spanish in a video the group released before the event. “Thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful country.”

The concert – a surprise last stop on the band’s Latin American tour – comes after a whirlwind week of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba. After decades of tension dating back to the Cold War, Castro met Monday in talks aimed at increasing dialogue and easing economic restrictions on trade between the nations.

There was little room for rock ‘n' roll in Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution, which distrusted bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones as agents of cultural imperialism. Rock records were hard to find, and while some musicians experimented with rock in underground venues, anything too public or flamboyant risked reprisals from the government.

Famed Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez lost his TV show in the late 1960s after he defended the Beatles on the air.

Cuban leaders saw counterculture music of the 1960s and ‘70s as a direct challenge to their authority, in part because it had its own revolutionary air, said Eric Zolov, a Latin American studies professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has studied rock music in Cuba. “It’s subversive,” he said. “It challenges hierarchy, challenges paternalism and is anti-authoritarian. You can’t build a revolution built on irreverence.”

Restrictions on music are long gone, and rock has since been eclipsed by reggaeton, rap and electronic music as the most popular forms of music among young Cubans.

But for a generation of older Cubans who loved rock music – albeit quietly – the Stones show may be as significant as Obama’s visit, Zolov said.

“For people of that generation who looked at what was happening in the counterculture in other countries, it’s got to be a kind of vindication that we were right, it is revolutionary to embrace rock ‘n' roll,” Zolov said.

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