Diplo was expecting around 40,000 Cubans to show up when he and his dance crew, Major Lazer, played Havana’s José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform on a recent Sunday afternoon. Instead, they got 10 times that many. Almost half a million fans, most of them teenagers, came out – a sea of bodies that stretched infinitely in front of the recently reopened U.S. Embassy. “It was the biggest show we ever played,” says Diplo. “They were absolutely crazy. Energy, so much energy. It was really emotional.
Major Lazer were only the second U.S. act to play a major concert in the communist country in more than 50 years (after Audioslave in 2005), and the first since President Obama called for restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. Right now, Cubans are gearing up for another historic show, on March 25th, when the Rolling Stones will become the first British band to play a large outdoor gig in Havana.
Some Cuban promoters are hoping the shows are just the tip of the iceberg for the island’s concert industry. “I think the Stones show will be the first of many major concerts in Cuba,” says Andres Levin, a musician and film and events producer in Cuba. “There are going to be a lot of firsts in the next couple of years.”
Concerts like these used to be unimaginable in Cuba. In 1964, Fidel Castro banned the Beatles from the island, viewing the band as a symbol of Western decadence. Until recently, rock was available only via bootlegs and distant radio signals from Miami. In 2008, Gorki Águila, from Cuban punk band Porno Para Ricardo, stood trial for “social dangerousness” after singing lyrics that poked fun at Castro. “In 1979, I was at a party listening to the Beatles, and the police stopped it and took the vinyl,” says Dionisio Arce, frontman of Cuban metal band Zeus, whose career under Castro’s rule is chronicled in the harrowing upcoming documentary Hard Rock Havana. “[The government] used to throw us in jail for trying to imitate Mick Jagger. Now, we’re receiving Mick Jagger in a big concert.”
But as communism fell around the world, Cuba gradually softened its stance on rock. A decade ago, Audioslave became the first U.S. rock band to play Cuba. They were greenlighted as part of a “cultural exchange,” in which the group visited a number of historical sites and agreed to appear on state radio. “I got more out of it than I gave,” says guitarist Tom Morello of the show, which drew 70,000. “People were hanging off rooftops and balconies, and there were people as far as the eye could see. Not 24 hours earlier, I was passing out fliers in a Havana dive bar, hoping that a couple hundred people showed up.”
Cuba has vibrant homegrown music scenes – from folk and Afro-Cuban to metal and reggaeton – but, for an outsider, putting on a show in the country can be a big undertaking. The majority of the population has little disposable income, all public shows must be approved and sponsored by the government’s Ministry of Culture, and the longstanding U.S. trade embargo has made tracking down equipment difficult. John Meglen, president of AEG Live’s Concerts West, is promoting the Stones show and says he’s been getting calls from clients who want to play the island. (His roster includes Elton John, Celine Dion and Rod Stewart.) But, Meglen acknowledges, “It’s very, very hard to make a profit. The average guy in Cuba makes $20 a week.”
The Major Lazer gig was the result of 14 months of negotiations between the Ministry of Culture – which pays salaries to many of the country’s musicians – and Cuban/American show producer Fabien Pisani of the Musicabana Foundation and Major Lazer’s management, who stressed their ties to the Caribbean (one member is from Trinidad, another is from Jamaica). Major Lazer ended up taking a $150,000 hit to put on the show. “We had to string together, like, five different PA systems,” says Diplo. They faced other challenges, from a lengthy visa process to promoting a show in a country that has little Internet access and a history of prohibiting the sale of U.S. music. Everyone onstage had to pass a background check, and the group had to get approval for videos played on large screens. “We couldn’t take our shirts off or encourage others to do so,” says Diplo. “We also tried not to discuss politics.”
Even after securing the gig, Major Lazer worried turnout would be low. But then, with the help of Pisani, their music was distributed via the country’s underground “El Paquete” service, in which residents bring thumb drives to be updated with international music and media. “Without it, I don’t think we could have done the show,” says Diplo.
The Stones – who made history playing East Germany in 1990 and China in 2006 – have long wanted to play Cuba. In October, as the band was negotiating its Cuban show, Mick Jagger visited Havana, walking the streets virtually unrecognized and showing up at an underground Afro-Cuban club. When the group kicked into a rumba version of “Satisfaction,” he hit the dance floor.
The problem with a Stones gig in Cuba, says Meglen, has been “paying for it. They wanted to make sure it was 100 percent free and for the people. No VIP areas.” The group’s management secured an unspecified amount of funding from the Fundashon Bon Intenshon, a group of philanthropists who fund art and charitable projects in the country, and is planning a film to offset costs. So far, they’ve racked up a bill of $7 million. “We’re literally bringing everything,” says Meglen. “Forklifts, towers, the biggest stage that exists. We found an Icelandic water guy [the company Icelandic Glacial]. He shipped 40,000 bottles of Icelandic water to Cuba for us.”
Since the U.S. loosened travel restrictions to Cuba, American tourism has skyrocketed. New hotels are opening, and the Manana Festival, a large electronic-music gathering, is coming to Santiago in May. For his part, Levin hopes to not see too much change. “We’re working hard to keep the Cuban experience as authentic as possible,” he says. “We are not slaves to our Internet or smartphones. There’s a lot more communication, lovemaking and laughing in groups. That’s probably one of the things you want to protect the most.”