The World’s Biggest Concerts Are Happening in Cuba

This article originally appeared in Rolling Stone.

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."


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