A momentous week in Cuba: From Barack Obama to Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones were the biggest mainstream rock act to play in Cuba since its 1959 revolution brought a communist government to power.

(AP Photo/Enric Marti)
Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs in Havana, Cuba, Friday March 25, 2016. The Stones are performing in a free concert in Havana Friday, becoming the most famous act to play Cuba since its 1959 revolution.

The Rolling Stones unleashed two hours of shrieking, thundering rock and roll on an ecstatic crowd of hundreds of thousands of Cubans and foreign visitors Friday night, capping one of the most momentous weeks in modern Cuban history with a massive celebration of music that was once forbidden here.

The week opened with the arrival of President Barack Obama in Air Force One, accompanied by more than 1,000 employees of a government that waged a cold war against Cuba for more than 50 years. This time, U.S. forces were armed with briefing books and press invitations, here to seal the president's 2014 opening to Cuba with a string of expertly crafted public events that saw Obama call for democracy live on state television, then attend a Major League Baseball exhibition game with Cuban President Raul Castro.

The week ended with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts firing "Jumpin' Jack Flash" ''Sympathy for the Devil" and "Satisfaction" into a jubilant crowd from 3-story-tall high-definition television screens and thumping towers of speakers.

From Sunday evening to late Friday night, it felt as if the full force of the 21st century had landed with bone-rattling impact on an island that still feels mostly cut off from the modern world.

"Havana, Cuba, and the Rolling Stones!" Jagger cried. "This is amazing! It's really good to be here! It's good to see you guys!"

The Stones romped through 18 of their classics, picking up force as the crowd in the open-air Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, jumped and chanted "Rollings! Rollings!"

The Rolling Stones were the biggest mainstream rock act to play in Cuba since its 1959 revolution brought a communist government to power and isolated the island from the United States and its allies. At its heyday, Cuba's communist government frowned on U.S. and British bands. Fans had to hide their Beatles and Stones albums in covers borrowed from albums of appropriately revolutionary Cuban groups.

But times have changed. Former supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Richard Gere and singer Jimmy Buffet partied in the VIP section of the concert. Castro's son Alejandro, one of the driving forces behind Cuba's declaration of detente with the United States, greeted friends and relatives after the show.

Far from the Cuban and international elites, ordinary Cubans said they felt shot through with energy, reconnected with the world.

"After today I can die," said 62-year-old night watchman Joaquin Ortiz. "This is like my last wish, seeing the Rolling Stones."

Rivers of spectators flowed north and south from the concert site after the show, watched over by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of security officials.

Few were willing to comment on the connections between the concert and Obama's visit earlier in the week, but many said the concert had implications beyond simple entertainment.

"The Rolling Stones being in Cuba at this time is like several steps up the ladder," said Jennifer Corchado, a 23-year-old biologist. "It's like three steps up the staircase toward global culture, toward the rest of the world."

Among the spectators was a large contingent of foreign tourists, for whom seeing Cuba was as novel as seeing the Rolling Stones is for Cubans.

Ken Smith, a 59-year-old retired sailor, and Paul Herold, a 65-year-old retired plumber, sailed to Havana from Key West, Florida on Herold's yacht.

"This has been one of my life-long dreams, to come to Cuba on my sailboat," Herold said.

Some Cuban concert-goers said it made them more optimistic about the future of their country.

"This is history," said Raul Podio, a 22-year-old employee of a state security firm, who was joined by a group of young friends. "I would like to see more groups, for there to be more variety, for more artists to come, because that would mean we are less isolated."

The band's Cuba stop ended its "Ole" Latin America tour, which also included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.


Correspondent Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Associated Press Deputy International Sports Editor Chris Lehourites is a lifelong Rolling Stones fan who traveled from London to Havana for four days to see the band's historic concert in Havana. He told the story of his trip to an AP colleague in Havana.

As a lifelong Stones fan, I had seen them in concert 29 times already. Starting in Los Angeles in 1989, through Athens, Greece, in 1998 and up to Montevideo, Uruguay, last month. I have seen them in huge stadiums, in smaller arenas, and in massive open areas.

For me, every show is great. Every show has its special surprises or memorable moments. Because of the history surrounding it, Friday's show was right up there with the best.

From the opening riff on "Jumpin' Jack Flash" right through to final iconic notes of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," the Rolling Stones were rocking and rolling like never before.

They may be old — grandads and even a great-grandad — but Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood can still put on a fantastic show. And they can still draw a crowd, too, more than 200,000 worth, according to some estimates.

The rumors about the Stones playing in Cuba started in October, when Jagger made a trip to the island and posted pictures of his visit on the Internet. The rumors weren't verified until a few weeks ago, however, when they finally announced that they would end their Latin American "Ole" tour at the Ciudad Deportiva in Havana.

As soon as the news came, I started searching for flights. But with Easter on Sunday, travel out of Britain can get pricey because Friday and Monday are holidays.

Luckily, my girlfriend Sophia wouldn't give up, searching airlines and playing with dates until she found a flight I was just about comfortable with paying. She wouldn't be coming with me because she "hates" the Stones, but she knew I was dying to find a way.

So I did. I flew in Wednesday, spent Thursday sightseeing and every waking moment on Friday at the Ciudad Deportiva.

I had heard from fans on the iorr.org website that the area around the venue was fenced and wouldn't open until 2 p.m. But I didn't want to take any chances so I got there at about 10:30 a.m.

There were already thousands of people gathered. There were people from Cuba, of course, but loads of others from Canada, from Brazil, from the Netherlands, from everywhere. All sitting and chatting and waiting.

And waiting. And waiting.

Finally, the gates were cleared and the throngs streamed through the dozen or so openings, many of them sprinting for a good spot. I made my way up to the tip of the catwalk, where Jagger often strolls out from the main stage and into the crowd, including for the duet with Sasha Allen on "Gimme Shelter."

It was perfect ending for a historic week which started with the visit of President Barack Obama and wound up with the "Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band in the World" playing for free on an island that to casual visitors like me seems frozen in time years before the Rolling Stones ever even got together."

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