Fidel Castro famously said “no” to Beatlemania in 1964 — sure that such a vulgar, consumerist group was just another tool of capitalist America, even though they were British. Cubans, promoted Fidel, should be listening to their island’s own music.
Yet on Friday, The Rolling Stones played a free show to as many as millions of Cuban citizens, some of whom even waved American flags in the audience.
Of course, even Castro’s ban didn’t stop Beatlemania in the Caribbean country. Albeit underground, their music still spread through Fidel’s Cuba. Not even the Iron Curtain could stop John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
By 1966, Fidel had already repealed the no-exceptions Beatles ban, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the first Beatles show was played on Cuban airwaves. Still, there was a certain amount of pushback from the Castro government toward the acceptance of rock n’ roll culture. Ernesto Juan Castellanos, who organized a Beatles conference in Cuba in 2000, told Alternet that imitation of artists like the Rolling Stones could easily result in trouble with the police.
“When people first started hearing the Beatles in Cuba, they started wearing different kind of clothes, jeans, leather jackets, longer hair. They talked about ‘revolution’, they identified with Che Guevara. When the police would arrest them for wearing long hair, they would say, ‘But when Che and Fidel came out of the mountains [to take control of Havana in 1959], they were wearing their hair long.”
This hesitancy of Castro to allow music because of its American influence might seem odd considering that both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were British bands. Castellanos explains that the controversy had more to do with the spirit associated with the music, something that was inexplicably linked to the United States.
“The Beatles were seen as having something to do with America. But the Beatles have nothing to do with America….Except that today, the Beatles influence in Cuba is much like it was in the U.S. in the 1960’s. It is sensual and liberating, in everything from fashion to politics.”
Musicians who favored a non-traditional sound often found themselves at odds with Fidel’s regime. Even when the ban was lifted, Castro still didn’t quite embrace the change. Dionisio Arce, a member of Cuban metal band Zeus, told Rolling Stone that his career was made incredibly difficult by such restrictions.
“In 1979, I was at a party listening to the Beatles, and the police stopped it and took the vinyl. The government] used to throw us in jail for trying to imitate Mick Jagger. Now, we’re receiving Mick Jagger in a big concert.”
Of course, the Beatles came to represent something much less difficult to divorce for capitalist America. Even Fidel himself eventually fell for John Lennon, erecting a statue of the musician on the 20th anniversary of the musician’s assassination, reported Slate.
Some current-day Cuban musicians say this shouldn’t indicate musical freedom in the new Castro administration. Even with Fidel out of the picture, Gorki Águila, lead singer of Porno para Ricardo, has been jailed several times for obscene lyrics, often in reference to the government, he told The Guardian. He wasn’t even sure if he would be able to attend the Rolling Stones show as police often don’t allow him to leave his house during major visits, like the Pope or Secretary of State John Kerry. Still, he was slightly conflicted about the show.
“If I could speak to them, I would tell them they are disrespecting the rights of artists in this country who are not able to express ourselves. The tyrants here are trying to portray an image of Cuba as an island of happy people. If the Rolling Stones don’t talk about what is going on here [in terms of human rights violations], then they are indirectly serving as collaborators with the Cuban tyranny.”
No announcement has been made about whether or not Fidel Castro himself attended the free Rolling Stones concert, or if his personal Beatles ban was also repealed for the Stones. After all, there’s no statue of Mick Jagger in Cuba.
[Image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images]