“If you look at the first five years of CBGBs and Cuba, there might be an analogy to be drawn,” Blondie guitarist Chris Stein tells Rolling Stone. “Both were very isolated. One of the strong points of the CBGB scene and the New York rock scene was that it was so isolated.”
“I feel the same way,” says singer Deborah Harry. “I like to draw my own conclusions about things. Chris and I both came up through the hippie era, and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are fascinating, enigmatic political heroes and antiheroes in the United States for the most part. It was always very attractive to me.”
The band members will be able to draw their own conclusions about the country next month when they embark on a four-day cultural exchange dubbed “Blondie in Havana.” The excursion is an opportunity for fans of the group to experience the country firsthand with museum tours, sightseeing trips and tickets to two Blondie concerts. For U.S. citizens, it’s one of the few ways to visit the country after President Trump rolled back Obama-era permissions that made it easier to travel to the country.
“I really don’t know any sane person who is a Trump supporter,” drummer Clem Burke says. “When you travel the world, you get more of a perspective on how people are viewing the U.S. and it’s like everything is turned upside down.”
“There’s probably some good to come out of the Trump administration, but it’s very hard for me to see,” Harry offers.
“The good to come out of the Trump administration is it being over,” Stein rejoins.
“They’re just pulling the United states back to the 1950s,” Harry says. “But we’re not here to talk about that, and I’m sorry I brought it up.”
Stein came up with the idea of performing in Cuba and, for the past year or so, the band members have been trying to navigate the countries’ governments to get there. None of them have been to the country — they were touring when Obama relaxed the rules — and they’re eager to see what Cuba offers. The guys in the group say they’re interested in Cuba’s vintage cars and general ingenuity — “Nothing comes in there, so they make power drills into electric fans,” Stein says — and they’re all excited to meet some Cuban musicians.
Blondie have always drawn inspiration from Latin and Caribbean music, and they point to “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High” as examples. “We did a song called ‘Wipe Off My Sweat,’ which is kind of a Latin thing,” Burke says, “And Chris is into the whole reggaeton thing. On the album Ghosts of Download, we did a song called ‘Sugar on the Side,’ which is very Latin-roots oriented.” They also have a history of working with Latin percussionists, such as Alex Acuña, who played on “The Tide Is High.” “It’s a big influence but maybe not so obvious,” Burke says. “It’s always in the undercurrent, and the whole Latin community in general, I think, are big supporters of Blondie.”
“Being from New York City, we were fortunate that it’s a melting pot of musical ideas, nationalities, ethnicities and cultures,” Harry adds. “It doesn’t seem so far-fetched that we would adopt some of those feelings into what we do.”
In Havana, three Cuban artists will be opening for the band at their two concerts. The 12-piece group Síntesis blend rock, disco and Latin music into a unique sound. Solo artist David Torrens has a poppier vibe, while Alain Perez performs salsa music with his own 12-piece band. The members of Blondie are eager to see them live and, if it works out, would consider inviting them onstage to play with them during the Blondie concerts. (The band said each show will have a unique set list.)
They intend on playing their biggest hits, but also want to dig beyond their standard repertoire to create something special. “We’re talking about bringing back ‘Attack of the Giant Ants,’ which was one of the very early Blondie versions of a Latin feel,” Harry says, referring to the closing song of the group’s 1976 self-titled debut. “Chris wanted to bring back [Blondie’s] ‘Man Overboard’ and I once did a Spanish version of ‘Call Me’ years ago, ‘Llámame,’ which was very fun to do and was actually a hit in South America. So I would love to do that. Maybe we’ll do ‘Sugar on the Side,’ which Chris wrote with some of the guys from Systema Solar from Colombia.”
“I was deep into this modern Latin music, you know, reggaeton and cumbia stuff, eight, nine years ago,” Stein says. “This was on the last two records, especially for some of the stuff on [2011’s] Panic of Girls. I was always kind of waiting for it to cross over. I knew those beats were so great. And now the reggaeton beat fucking everywhere. It’s in everything at this point.”
While they’re in Havana, Harry hopes to visit some clubs and see younger artists. “I can’t really predict what the music scene there is like, whether it’s sort of controlled in a certain way,” she says. Stein says he’s interested to see how prevalent rock music and its influences are there, since “there’s really hardcore rock fans in Mexico and Brazil.”
“My dearest wish is that we can do a free concert at some point in Cuba on this trip,” Harry says. “I want to invite a regular street audience to come in for one of the sound checks. I know that if people have spent money for a ticket, they’re not going to be happy that we’re giving something away for free, but I feel like it would be a good thing to do.”
“We’re hoping to try to sort of semi-integrate ourselves into the community and maybe do some performances and jamming prior to the official concerts for the local community,” Burke concurs. “I really don’t know what to expect other than there’s a common denominator when you’re playing music. If possible, maybe we’ll do a drum circle or some kind of musical communication, which is always a great field leveler.”
The one thing they’re not ready for yet is just how isolated from the rest of the world they’ll be. Since the Cuban government restricts internet usage, they’re anticipating it will be difficult to get online. “Incommunicado,” Harry says. “Boy, oh, boy, there’s gonna be a lot of withdrawal.”
“We’ll just have to wait for the Instagram posts until we get out,” Stein says.