Cuba: Rocking Havana

'Yanqui' musicians find rebels, repression and bad cigars

Havana at night. Credit: Images by Toronto Photographer Robert Greatrix

THEIR RADIO, THE YOUNG Cuban couple's battered but precious portable Panasonic, is the most important thing in their lives. It's their only link to the world of rock & roll, blue jeans and what amounts to a fairyland of freedom compared to the Marxist military state of Cuba. Fidel Castro Ruz may have outlawed rock & roll, but he can't outlaw the radios that suck in the sounds of the music from the States.

I first saw Preston and Maruja, with their radio-cassette player, literally hiding behind a tree near the beach by the Hotel Marazul, where I was staying some thirty miles from Havana. I'd just had a strenuous encounter with a loyal young communist, an encounter that ended with him saying to me, in loose translation, "Live free or die, imperialist motherfucker whore!" He and I obviously had different ideas about what "living free" meant, and his riposte culminated a small debate about the respective roles of the U.S. and Cuba in the Vietnam-China conflict. Cuba's position is amply demonstrated by the dozens of VIETNAM VINCERA ("Vietnam Will Win") billboards dotting the lush, green countryside and by Fidel's oft-quoted "We Must Be Ready for Anything" speech (his manifesto denouncing China and declaring Cuba's solidarity with Vietnam).

I was in Cuba to attend the Havana Jam, a historic (and nonpolitical) three-night music festival of U.S. and Cuban musicians on March 2nd, 3rd and 4th. It was the first such event since before the Cuban Revolution, but my communist opponent was more interested in the global success of Marxism than in musical hands across the ocean. The Havana Jam was in fact an unofficial affair: CBS Records President Bruce Lundvall set up the concerts with the Cuban cultural ministry without the official sanction of either the Carter or Castro administration. The festival was of no great importance to the majority of Cubans, who did not even know about it. The young communist knew about the Jam since his family was well connected politically and thus entitled to tickets. The presence of such musicians as Weather Report, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Billy Joel, the CBS Jazz All Stars, Stephen Stills and a like amount of leading Cuban groups meant little to him. Solidarity with the people of Vietnam was more important.

I had started walking back to the hotel, and halfway through the stand of tall pines that separated the beach from the hotel, I heard a "psst!" coming from behind a tree. "Psst! Señor, mister, monsieur? You are being avec with con los Americanos?"

We finally settled on French as the common language, and I established that I was un CBS Americain. Preston, Maruja and their Panasonic emerged from behind the tree. Initially, I wasn't sure about them, especially after suddenly being immersed in a country that is part late-Fifties nightclub flash and flesh show, part banana republic inefficiency and poverty and part military stockade that seems permanently mobilized.

Cuba's brand of communism is unique: I saw floor shows in Havana that far outstrip anything in Las Vegas or Paris, yet media censorship is total. I had to register with the foreign-affairs ministry, which stationed agents in the hotel to supervise American journalists. I was most curious about the state of life for young people in Cuba. Unfortunately, said Luis Llerandi, my foreign-affairs overseer at the hotel, such interviews would not be possible since I was in Cuba purely to see three concerts. Luis had just left the beach when Preston and Maruja approached, and I had no way of knowing if they were government agents or what.

It soon developed that they were regular kids, rock & roll fans. Preston's words spilled out excitedly. Who was I, was I a famous rock star that perhaps he had heard on one of the radio stations from Miami? I am being journalist from Rolling Stone? Fantástico! Rolling Stone is being hottest item on Cuban black market, next to Levi's, rock & roll records and American cigarettes.

Preston and Maruja, it turns out, a re both students at the University of Havana, but they'd rather be at, say, Ohio State or Miami U. They are not great fans of communism or Castro.

Preston looked nervously over his shoulder. "The police are watching the beach," he said. I scoffed. He jumped nervously: "Oh, no. Remember what country you are in. We should not be seen talking to you. We could be arrested. We must go. You are getting for us maybe invitations [tickets] to see Billy Yo-el and Krisanrita?"

Can't do, I said. The Cuban cultural ministry is handling the whole thing. Since the invitations were free, why hadn't Preston and Maruja gotten a pair? Maruja spoke up: "The invitations went to the communists and the Russians. Young people could not get them. Tell Billy Yo-el and Krisanrita that the people that are being seeing them are not being the people who love them. Remember, this is being communist state." I suddenly recalled that the charter flight that had brought the musicians and journalists down from New York City had been insured by CBS for $120 million.

Maruja looked at me pleadingly: "You are getting for us maybe copies of Rolling Stone?" Sure, I said, come on back to the hotel with me. They both recoiled. "No," said Preston, "the police are there." It turned out he was right.

While Preston and Maruja lurked in the woods, I went back to the Marazul, enjoyed a refreshing saltwater shower (the room was going for ninety dollars a day), dressed and went back to the pine trees with an armload of copies of Rolling Stone, two cartons of Winstons and cassette tapes of the Stones, Billy Joel, Kristofferson, the Bay Hays (I mean the Bee Gees), Beatles, etc. Preston and Maruja almost wept with delight. I'd just given them what amounted to goods worth hundreds of dollars on the black market, but it wasn't the monetary value that overwhelmed them. It was just that this was stuff they would never otherwise have had the chance to get. The only other thing they wanted was my Levi's, which Preston told me would go for about 150 pesos (almost $200) on the black market. I kept them on.

Preston insisted on taking me to Havana to visit his house, "even though it is only poor apartment." I'd love to, I said, but my man Luis at the hotel isn't real keen on journalists jumping the tour and seeing people not on the approved list. I can't hop in a taxi, because the Yanqui journalists have to clear everything with Luis, and besides, there aren't any taxis at the Marazul. Preston said to forget the cab; I should get on the same Havana-bound bus he and Maruja would take. I should board it at a bus stop two blocks from the Marazul and pretend not to recognize him and Maruja. Again, I scoffed. Preston became serious: "I have friends who are in jail for 'crimes against the revolution.'" He seemed genuinely frightened, but at the same time he couldn't pass up the chance to get next to Yanqui rock & roll, at least get as close as he could. I went back to the hotel and told Luis I had contracted a sudden headache and would pass up the afternoon bus tour of selected museums. He clucked solicitously.

I got on the number 162, an aging British Leyland bus, paid my twenty centavos (about twenty-five cents) and found standing room next to Preston and Maruja. I drew a few curious states from the other passengers, but nothing serious.

Everyone in Cuba, it seems, rides buses. Few people own cars, and the ones who do have prerevolution (pre-1959) American cars. This is 1955 Chevy heaven. Cuban mechanics are wizards (they're still repairing 1949 Studebakers and 1948 Hudsons). We rode past the Jose Marti youth pioneer camp, where thousands of kids were waiting on the highway for rides after finishing their mandatory two weeks of indoctrination. Soldiers were hitchhiking all along the road; olive drab as far as the eye could see. The bus turned onto the Malecon — the spectacular seawall road that separates Havana from the Gulf of Mexico — and passed Morro Castle, built in 1642 to protect Havana's harbor.

We disembarked in Old Havana and walked down Monserrate past the Museum of the Revolution, which was Batista's palace before Castro took over. I wanted to linger and look at Granma, the luxury yacht Castro had used to invade Cuba from Mexico (the boat, about sixty feet long, is encased in glass with armed soldiers guarding it), but Preston and Maruja hurried me on. Old Havana was in many ways depressing. The streets were filthy — even by New York City standards — and the once-beautiful eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Spanish houses were deteriorating. Laundry on once-lovely balconies was billowing in the breeze. At almost every corner were anti-Chinese, pro-Vietnam posters put up by the CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — block associations and de facto communist watchdogs on a local level).

We turned left on Brasil Street. From outside, Preston's house was impressive, a Dresden-china blue structure with an imposing wood door marked by a large oval peephole. The interior was another story. The stairs were grimy. Preston's apartment amounted to a peeling stucco closet, taller than it was wide. The building, once a single-family home, had been subdivided into a dozen cubicles. His kitchenette had a hot plate, on which he brewed me a cup of coffee, a real luxury in Cuba (many of the finest restaurants do not have coffee at all). Preston proudly served it in a chipped cup. He put the Some Girls cassette I had given him onto his Panasonic and turned it up. "Fantástico!" he said. He had heard only "Miss You," on Miami's WGBS, from which he had also learned the only English he knew.

While I sipped coffee, Preston and Maruja scanned the copies of Rolling Stone. Then they started hitting me with questions. Who won the Grammys? Who is bigger in the U.S., Andy Gibb or Barry Manilow? What is Paul McCartney doing now? What has happened to John Lennon? I said Lennon was now a dairy farmer. Preston was incredulous. "The leader of los Beatles is now being campesino? Fantástico!"

Three of Preston's friends (two students and a dentist) came in bearing bottles of Hatuey beer. They pressed me with more questions: the males wanted to know if I'd met Raquel Welch or Dolly Parton. The females wanted to know about Warren Beatty and Kris Kristofferson.

Preston and his friends poured out their souls. They want to leave Cuba right now. They want rock & roll and western movies and Levi's. They love Kristofferson because they saw him in A Star Is Born. Preston does not give "two shits" about Marxism and he begged me to print what he said, because "I am not speaking with just one voice. I am speaking with many voices, of many of my friends, who are feeling the same way as I am. We are all not being communists here." His friends nodded. "We not all are being Marxists. That is not freedom."

"Perhaps you are getting us invitations to the show tonight?" Preston asked.

I'll talk to Krisanrita, I said.

"What was the show last night being like?"

Well, I said, Weather Report, one of the best American jazz groups, had opened the show, and it was terrific by any standards, especially the solos by Jaco Pastorius and Joe Zawinul, and the fog-machine effects. Two Cuban groups had followed, Conjunto Yaguarimu and Orquesta Aragon, and I was partial to Orquesta Aragon's melodic charango music. Preston curled his lip: "That is old people's music. There is nothing in Cuba now that is our music. We listen to WGBS in Miami and WLAC in Nashville and WLS in Chicago and sometimes when the weather is right we see Soul Train.

"So then what else happened?"

Well, I said, the Fania All Stars ("Latins from Manhattan," as Dexter Gordon called them) played and the Cubans walked out in droves. "Fania is a girl's name," Preston explained, "so why should we see such a group?" Beats me, I said.

Maruja, who had disappeared earlier, returned, shyly holding up a slender joint. Cristo, I said, that is dope. That surely means jail here? They smiled. "We are trusting you," Maruja said. "Please to smoke with us." I did. It was Cuban home-grown marijuana and not all that good, but the sentiment outdid the product. We all smiled at each other as Maruja put on a Stones tape. Fidel may be exporting his soldiers, but he has a potential opposition at home.

I asked them about Cuban music. They shook their heads in disgust. "All Cuban music is old people's music," Preston said. "The nightclubs are very bad. They are for the tourists. The music is very bad, it is the music of the 1950s. It is as if there is no now. Musically in this country, it is always yesterday. Havana is a capital of 2 million people, but there are being only three clubs where young people go where there is being tapes of American music. Is very bad."

Is there, I asked, being very careful with the question, an underground in Havana? They didn't understand the concept of "underground." I tried the term "opposition."

"It's impossible," Preston blurted out. "La póliza is everywhere. They are everyone. Life was better before the revolution, I am thinking, except now life is better for free education and free health. But the intellectual life is gone; everything is conducted for the Communist party. The Communist party is a giant octopus. Fear is everywhere." What can you do? I asked. "Why, nothing!" Preston said. "Nothing is possible."

It was time for me to head for that night's performance. Everyone gave me a formal handshake, except for Maruja, who gave me a lingering kiss. Hands across the ocean, so to speak.

IARRIVED EARLY THAT NIGHT at the Karl Marx Theater, a.k.a. Teatro Carlos Marx. The theater looks uncomfortably like an American department store, with Marx' signature spilled across the facade of the building in ten-foot-high neon letters. The police were arresting kids trying to sneak in. The Russians were lined up, already looking bored. I took my seat in row seven; a Cuban "guide" sat near the aisle to "protect" los Americanos.

The Karl Marx Theater is Cuba's version of Carnegie Hall; a very plush, 4800-seat venue. The big problem, as even Bruce Lundvall admitted, was that all the "free" tickets were indeed handed out to loyal communists. Lundvall said he could never get a straight answer from the bureaucrats about ticket distribution. I got one answer when I spotted Preston and Maruja in the crowd: they'd bought invitations for ten pesos each (about $12.50) on the black market. So much for Marxism.

The CBS Jazz All Stars opened, and were not at their best, mainly because that afternoon they'd been permitted a sound check of about two and a half seconds, while the Cuban groups got two hours. Still, seeing a trio of John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and Jaco Pastorius was electrifying, as were performances by such greats as Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Eric Gale, Jimmy Heath and Percy Heath. Trying to crowd all that into forty-five minutes was not fair, and they knew they'd gotten short shrift. The musicians had not needed to come to Cuba, several told me later. They came because they thought they'd be welcome, but I couldn't find a one who said he'd like to return. Getz, who'd been the inspiration for this Havana Jam (about two years ago, he, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines got off a cruise ship in Havana and jammed spontaneously with Cuban groups) was very unhappy. "This is too institutionalized," he said. "The government took it over."

But it was not a bad night for music: Stephen Stills played better than I'd ever seen him, and he even jumped into the crowd with his transmitter guitar. Preston and Maruja were delighted. "We have never seen anything like that," Preston told me. Stills drew a tremendous response when he performed "Cuba Al Fin," a Spanish song of solidarity with the Cuban people he'd written especially for the occasion. Unfortunately, when Stills got backstage, he was attacked by Cuban officials for playing longer than his allotted time.

The Cuban group Irakere, which CBS now has touring America as an opening act for Stills, closed the night with a lovely set of classical Afro-Cuban-Mozartian jazz. But many of the American musicians, disgusted at the treatment they'd been receiving and the isolation they felt, didn't see Irakere. Instead, they gathered at the backstage bar and got drunk on rum and listened to a Richard Pryor tape. On the bus back to the hotel, two well-known jazz musicians — one white, one black — got into a bitter racial argument.

Havana Jam's third night opened with a Cuban group so bad that an American engineer fetched me to listen to the sound as it came over the mixing board. "This is Ricky Ricardo forever," he said, and he was right. Dexter Gordon walked by, heading determinedly for the bar. "This is too much," he said. "I've seen nothing but the hotel and this concert hall. I thought they'd at least let us jam with the Cubans. But we got nothing."

Krisanrita did well, especially after Kris dedicated "The Living Legend" to "your commander in chief, Fidel," and got a standing ovation. When Kris came offstage, he admitted being "scared shitless," but he got the only backstage ovation the American musicians accorded anybody. Percussionist Willie Bobo slapped Kris on the back and told him, "I always knew there were white niggers but I never saw any till tonight!"

Kristofferson said he didn't intend to make a political statement: "I told the audience that this song could have been sung for great revolutionaries like Zapata, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ. I was just rapping about building bridges between people."

Following Krisanrita were Sara Gonzalez and Pablo Milanes, two prominent members of the Cuban nueva trova (the new song movement), rather like folk singers. I asked Preston what he thought. "Old music," he said. "I am waiting to see Billy Yo-el."

Billy Yo-el closed out the festival with a bang. When he jumped on his piano, the kids in the crowd surged past the guards and really tried to get down. If the Cuban government thought they were keeping rock & roll out of their country, Joel proved them wrong, prompting the American press to dutifully record that he had proved rock & roll can still be subversive.

I was standing in the wings with some of the CBS Jazz All Stars, though, and their comments suggested that they thought anybody with three chords could get any kids up out of their seats and dancing. They were also, they said, "highly pissed off" that Joel was the only musician who refused to allow CBS to record and videotape his performance. That made for some ugly words between Lundvall and Elizabeth Joel, Billy's wife and manager. After all, CBS had laid out about $235,000 for this affair and hoped to release a series of albums as well as a TV network special. Losing the closing act would leave a big hole in the records and film. Elizabeth Joel told me that "we just don't want another album out when we've done so much already." One CBS Jazz All Star said Joel's decision was "a slap in the face to the rest of us. We agreed to come down and so did he. Now he becomes a prima donna."

Lundvall said he couldn't explain Joel's decision. It did not make for great relations between Americans. Stephen Stills told a sound engineer: "Never have so few worked so hard for so little."

And whatever goodwill the Americans retained toward Cuba disappeared at Jose Marti Airport when they were forced to wait more than seven hours before clearing customs, while Russian tour groups were breezed through. The sight of dozens of the best musicians in the world standing there and spontaneously singing "I Love New York" while shaking their fists at the Russians is not something I will soon forget.

I have never heard as much complaining as I did on that flight back to New York. Just after takeoff, the pilot came on the PA system and drew cheers when he announced, "Those of you on the left side of the aircraft can lean out and spit on Havana."

I was sitting with Tony Williams and asked him what his feelings were. "It was not what I thought it would be," he said, lighting up an American cigar. "Even the cigars weren't any good. There were a lot of unfriendly people. I had hoped there'd be some interchange with the Cuban musicians, that I'd get to jam with some of their drummers, but they deliberately kept us isolated. They wanted to flaunt their power."

Still, I couldn't forget the expressions on Preston's and Maruja's faces after Billy Joel's set. They came up and hugged me, as if the whole damned thing had been my doing. And Maruja said, "Thank you, United States of America, for giving us rock & roll. Otherwise, we would never have seen it."