Musicians Visit Cuba: A Look Back
Despite its troubled political history, Cuba has generally enjoyed a warm relationship with international musicians. Over the years, a handful of artists in a variety of genres have traveled to the embargoed nation as cultural students and unofficial diplomatic representatives. For decades, the Cuban government placed a strict ban on rock music in the name of "ideological deviation," but these restrictions are becoming more relaxed.
The Rolling Stones have taken advantage of the thawing relations by announcing a free show in Havana on March 25th — taking place less than a week after Barack and Michelle Obama's arrival there — to conclude their Latin American tour. "We have performed in many special places during our long career but this show in Havana is going to be a landmark event for us," the band said in a press release. They follow Diplo and Major Lazer, who played an open-air concert to a crowd of half a million Cubans on March 6th.
As Cuba's iron curtain continues to fall, here is a brief history of musicians who have made the trip to perform or merely learn.
Josephine Baker (1950)
American-born Baker left her famous banana skirt at home when she first traveled to Cuba for a five-week residency at the American Theater. Despite her fame, she was denied lodging at the prestigious Hotel Nacional due to the color of her skin and forced to find more modest accommodations.
In January 1966, she made a triumphant return at the invitation of President Fidel Castro, who requested her talents to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Her performance broke attendance records at the Teatro Musical de La Habana.
Nat King Cole (1956–58)
The crooner and jazz pianist was a frequent visitor to Cuba in the Fifties, performing at Havana's famed Tropicana club three times before the Communist takeover at the end of the decade. Unlike Josephine Baker, he felt the city afforded him the respect denied to him in the States. "I love going to Cuba, because they treat me like a white man," he noted at the time.
Intoxicated by Cuba's exotic sounds and rhythms, Cole used a Havana studio to record instrumental tracks for what would become Cole Español (1958), an album composed largely of Cuban songs — including his repertoire staple "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás." It was the first of three Latin-influenced discs he would release.
Billy Joel, Stephen Stills, Kris Kristofferson, Weather Report and More (1979)
As political tensions between the United States and Cuba began to lessen in the late Seventies, American record executives Bruce Lundvall and Jerry Masucci saw an opportunity to improve cultural relations through music. With the blessing of the Cuban cultural authorities, they staged Havana Jam: a three-day festival showcasing American and Cuban acts. To represent the U.S., Lundvall and Masucci enlisted Billy Joel, Stephen Stills, husband-and-wife team Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, and Weather Report — then containing legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, who also appeared alongside guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Tony Williams in an ill-fated configuration billed as Trio of Doom.
The historic performances took place at Havana's Karl Marx Theater between March 2nd and 4th, 1979. Despite the altruistic vision, the festival was invite-only, and attended primarily by Cuban government officials and other members of the political elite. Two live double albums of the concert were released, and Cuban filmmaker Ernesto Juan Castellanos produced the documentary Havana Jam '79 (2009).
Dizzy Gillespie (1985)
A co-founder of the Afro-Cuban jazz movement, Gillespie made several musical research trips to Cuba after Castro's revolution. It was on one of these expeditions in 1977 that he first met Arturo Sandoval, the influential trumpeter and composer. The men shared the stage when Gillespie was invited to headline Havana's Fifth International Jazz Festival in 1985. Also performing was 22-year-old Cuban Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom Gillespie dubbed the best jazz pianist he had encountered in more than a decade.
David Byrne (1989–1992)
The former Talking Heads frontman has never performed in Cuba, but his visits have inspired his solo work — particularly 1989's Rei Momo. Circumventing the trade embargo through a legal loophole, Byrne has released several compilations of Cuban music on his own label, Luaka Bop. "Can music be our enemy?" he writes in the liner notes to his Cuba Classics: Dancing With the Enemy disc. "Can communists have a good time? Is music communist? The music has had people in Cuba dancing for the last three decades. Now it's your turn." He also issued a collection of songs by revolutionary Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez.
Ry Cooder (1996)
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Ry Cooder was invited to Havana in 1996 by British music producer Nick Gold, with the aim to record an album featuring local son musicians. Tapping Juan de Marcos Gonzalez as musical director, they assembled a large band of traditional performers, most of whom had been active in the members-only Buena Vista Social Club in the 1940s and 1950s. "Society in Cuba … was organized around these fraternal social clubs," Cooder explained later. "At the Buena Vista Social Club, musicians went there to hang out with each other, like they used to do at musicians' unions in the U.S., and they'd have dances and activities."
For maximum authenticity, the six-day session took place at EGREM studios, where the equipment and atmosphere had remained unchanged since the Fifties. The resulting album, named Buena Vista Social Club in honor of the musician’s roots, became a massive worldwide hit and spawned an Academy Award–nominated documentary of the same name. Both are invaluable documents that helped preserve and share pre-Revolutionary Cuban music.
Rick Wakeman (2005)
Fidel Castro personally invited the ex-Yes keyboardist to perform in Havana with his band, the New English Rock Ensemble. The aging president is apparently a big fan, and reportedly presented Wakeman with a lump of dirt from the grave of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. The shows held that April were some of the first — and biggest — performances of their kind in Cuba.
Building on the progress made at Havana Jam 25 years earlier, Chris Cornell and Co. became the first American band to rock out on Cuban soil during an open-air concert on May 6th, 2005. More than 65,000 Cubans jammed into Havana's José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform to see what Cornell claimed was the longest set Audioslave had ever played. They included material from the first two Audioslave albums, as well as past tracks from their prior bands, Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine. A concert film, Live in Cuba, was released that fall.
"I really didn't think the same after I left," Cornell later told ABC. "I really understood what music is and how it's that language that everybody speaks no matter what other audible language you speak."
The High Strung (2009)
In one of the most unusual Cuban performances in recent memory, the Detroit-based indie-rock band accepted an invitation to play a show in the library of Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. military prison was an odd venue choice for a band of avowed pacifists, who had made headlines in 2005 for doing a tour of Michigan libraries to promote reading. Presumably the Armed Forces picked up on the story and hoped the Gitmo servicemen would be amused.
The High Strung, for their part, were understandably nervous about the whole endeavor. "It was like the Three Stooges going to Guantanamo Bay," singer Josh Malerman told the Agit Reader. "We had German Shepherds smelling our bags and our gear." The performance went off without incident.
Calle 13 (2010)
The Puerto Rican hip-hop collective sparked controversy during an outdoor concert in Havana when lead singer René Pérez hurled verbal abuse at the nearby "U.S. Interests Section" — which the United States kept in place of a diplomatic embassy until 2015. Their criticism continued when they performed "Querido FBI" ("Dear FBI"), a song dedicated to a noted Puerto Rican nationalist killed during an FBI shoot out in 2005. "He was a good Boricua," Pérez told the crowd of 250,000 Cubans, "and they killed him."
Calle 13 faced criticism from Cuban expats in the United States directly affected by Castro's repressive regime.
Beyoncé and Jay Z (2013)
Pop music's first couple made worldwide headlines when they took a Cuban vacation to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. The seemingly benign trip turned into a minor scandal when they were accused of violating the trade embargo by paying for a state-sponsored cultural tour. The incident was an embarrassing moment for Cuban-American relations, which had been steadily improving throughout the 21st century. Ultimately, the trip was declared legal in a nine-page report from the U.S. Treasury Department.
The Dead Daisies (2015)
The Aussie-American rockers were invited to Havana as guests of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Cuban Institute of Music and the Cuban Rock Agency in early 2015. While there, they jammed in a recording studio with local musicians, conducted workshops in Cuban schools and played several sets. The trip culminated in the Cuba Rocks for Peace concert, which attracted a crowd of more than 6,000. "The week in Cuba was unbelievable," enthused guitarist Dave Lowy to Loudwire. "It was one of the best musical experiences of my life."
Major Lazer (2016)
When the electro prince and his posse stormed Havana's Anti-Imperialist Platform on March 6th, the 400,000 Cubans in attendance weren't completely sure what to expect. "It's amazing because we have never received someone like him," a local music fan told a reporter for Pitchfork. Major Lazer is the first EDM act to ever play in Cuba, ushering in a new kind of cultural exchange. The concert, 14 months in the making, was entirely self-funded. "We came to bring peace," Diplo announced from the stage.
The appearance preceded Barack Obama's historic visit by just a few days. "I was lucky enough to visit Cuba a few years back with my friends Calle 13," Diplo tweeted after the event. "And during my four days there, my mind was blown by the people, depth of culture and their way of life."
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