By Matt Shirley
When Keith Richards plugged in his Telecaster on Friday, March 25, 2016, the final act of Cuba’s long-overdue cultural legitimacy by the West was complete, and it sounded marvelous. The Rolling Stones are the most-successful rock ’n’ roll band in history by a great many margins, including relevancy, longevity, tour sales, and adoring fans, which remain legion 50-plus years into the band’s run.
Their pairing with Cuba is not merely routed in playing another venue. The band formed in London, England in 1962, the year of America’s Cuban missile crisis, in which the Nikita Khrushchev-led Soviet Russia installed nuclear missiles on the island with the ability to strike as far north as Washington, D.C.
As the Stones topped the charts and became a true phenomenon in 1965 with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the ruling party on the island became officially known as the Partido Comunista de Cuba, or the Communist Party of Cuba. In 1976, Fidel Castro officially became president of Cuba, same year that Ron Wood officially became a member of the Stones as lead guitarist, replacing Mick Taylor and founding member Brian Jones before him.
In 2008, as Raul Castro was named president, the Stones became movie stars again with the release of the concert film “Shine A Light,” directed by Martin Scorsese.
Moreover, in the thread of rock ’n’ roll, lead singer Mick Jagger and rhythm guitarist Keith Richards are perhaps the Che and Fidel of the Rock world. Mick was the musical explorer, spreading the gospel and expanding his taste for the available sound. Keith was the true believer of the original mission: the blues. He found his place in the pop sound and planted the flag. He was flexible in the application – the sound – of the music but inflexible in the spirit of it.
All these years later they’re still the same because it works.
In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s The Rolling Stones recorded hit after hit embracing love, sex, freedom of expression, swagger, passion, and indifference to authority. As the latter decade wore on, when morphed from the symbol of what the establishment hated to an establishment themselves.
Over the last few decades, they’ve recorded a handful of albums, but their concerts have been the real act that the world demands. There are no greater statesmen of rock ’n’ roll and the lasting thrill of the concert than the Stones themselves. Them playing Cuba has as much to do with them spreading a positive message as Cuba does in receiving one.
The Rolling Stones playing Cuba is landmark not simply for the musical value, but the cultural value in Cuba as well. For decades the Stones, as well as most Western acts, fell under the diversionismo ideológico ban, which restricted music such as theirs from the island. While many in Cuba found their fix somehow, this was considered against the law.
Over the last several years, Cuba has relaxed its tune, and now one might see a poster of Che Guevara’s face with the famous Rolling Stones Lips emblem over the revolutionary leader’s mouth.
The Stones’ concert was the last great step of cultural unification, but not the last step to political unification. That comes from the U.S. lifting the embargo that began in 1960. In the meantime, world music can thank Cuba for such music such as the style Son Cubano, acts like the Buena Vista Social Club, the dances like the Mambo, which have all been of great importance to the rest of the world.
Inward on the island has been limited. The great leap towards that collapsing began in Friday. It was a landmark week for the tiny island, and there was no better way to cap it off than “The greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the World.”