Thursday, February 11, 2016
Story by Matthew Hansen
Photography by Ryan Soderlin
It is near midnight, and the club is packed and sweltering when a man who looks very much like Lenny Kravitz jogs onstage and does something that destroys both eardrums and borders.
He pulls down his sunglasses and glares at the crowd: half-Cuban, half-tourist and half-drunk. He sneers and grabs the microphone. He spits out the first line.
“Say you want a revolutionnn, weelllll you know. We all wanna change the world,” he belts in a voice equal parts Havana and Liverpool as a crowd of 200 screams its approval.
This is the lead singer of the Gens, one of Cuba’s oldest rock bands. This is the Submarino Amarillo, Cuba’s only rock ’n’ roll club that doubles as a tribute bar to the world’s most famous rock band.
And this is a special night. It’s the 35th anniversary of the day John Lennon died. It’s a night to remember: We are all Beatles.
“That’s the beauty!” yells club manager Guille Vilar above the noise. “No matter where we’re from, rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll!”
There is a young Cuban man here wearing a Pantera T-shirt who keeps raising his right arm and making the universal two-finger rock salute. There are Cubans here playing air guitar and Cubans who can’t speak English and yet are singing along as the band finishes its first Beatles song and launches into “Tax Man.” (Turns out Cubans hate taxes, too.)
There are 60-something Europeans and Americans here, wide awake way past their bedtimes and sporting sloppy grins that say: I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
A band performs at the Submarino Amarillo. For decades, rock music was officially banned in Cuba after Fidel Castro labeled it "decadent."
People listen to the band at the Submarino Amarillo. The crowd, a mix of Cuban and tourist, sang along to Beatles hits as well as new pop music like "Uptown Funk."
And it is hard to believe what we are seeing.
This is a country whose leader called rock ’n’ roll “the music of the enemy” and outlawed it in 1962. A country where for decades your neighbors might report you to the authorities if you did something decadent like listen to the Rolling Stones with the sound way up.
When Vilar, the booking manager, was growing up in Pinar del Rio, in western Cuba, he listened to the banned music by getting his mitts on the occasional smuggled record from America or Europe and hiding it inside the record sleeve of a Cuban artist. At night he would listen quietly: Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, the Stones and, yes, the Beatles.
Sometimes, when the weather was perfect, he could turn the knobs on his radio dial left and right until, through the static, he could pick up the faintest sounds of his favorite radio station: KAAY in Little Rock, Arkansas.
KAAY hosted a famed radio show called “Beaker Street,” credited with introducing American teens in the Midwest and South to the rock ’n’ roll counterculture of the late ’60s. And, unbeknown to its hosts, they were introducing a Cuban teen to the music of Woodstock, too.
“‘Beaker Street’! Arkansas!” he yells at you over the sound of the Gens playing a funky cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Around the time the Cold War ended, the strict ban on rock music began to fade. In its place grew a soft spot for classic rock, the Beatles and particularly John Lennon, believed by Cubans to be sympathetic to socialism.
On this very date in 1990, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Lennon’s death, Cuba hosted a Beatles tribute concert in the park across the street from here. On this date in 2000, Fidel showed up at the park to dedicate a statue of Lennon.
On the 35th anniversary of his death, a candle burns next to a statue of John Lennon in Lennon Park in the Vedado district of Havana.
An eight-day series from The World-Herald
Day One Put aside those old views of Fidel and a Cuba stuck in the 1950s. In large and small ways, this country is changing fast.
Day Two Two women pursue their entrepreneurial dream inside the state-run economy.
Day Three How a $2 weekly service is connecting Cubans to the rest of the world.
Day Four Twisting, turning paths bring two young Cubans to Omaha.
Day Five A Nebraskan fights to get back what Castro took from her family.
The photographs Photographer Ryan Soderlin takes you on a visual journey through Cuba.
After the statue went up,
someone in the Cuban leadership had an idea: Why don’t we open a Beatles-themed club next to the park?
Which is how Vilar, by then a nationally known rock musicologist, became the manager of the Submarino Amarillo, where for the past decade he has been booking bands, many of which cover ’60s- and ’70s-era rock standards.
For the 35th anniversary this night he has booked the Gens, his favorite Beatles tribute band on the island. After they play a few songs, he ambles on stage to say a few words about John Lennon and the power of music.
He shows the crowd a blown-up photo, a famous one, of John and Yoko Ono in their kitchen. A poster of Che Guevara hangs on their kitchen wall.
He starts to talk about what this photo means to him. He starts to cry.
“I am a revolutionary,” he tells me later. “I also believe in rock ’n’ roll. Does that make sense?”
The music starts again, and we reach what appears to be the crowd participation part of the evening. The Gens’ lead singer disappears, a nervous-looking woman replaces him, and in a shaky, pretty voice does her rendition of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.” That’s right: country music in Cuba.
Then a young Cuban man climbs onstage. He is dressed entirely in white: white shoes, white jeans, white jacket. He starts to strut and pelvic-thrust his way around the stage, as if he’s the sexiest chicken who ever lived, and then the guitars kick in and … “No!” I yell. “No!”
Yes, it is “Highway to Hell.” You have not lived until you have heard AC/DC performed by a Cuban man dressed in all white doing a credible Mick Jagger impersonation.
The scene outside the Submarino Amarillo, where you go from the energy and heat of the claustrophic club to the relative cool and calm on the Havana night.
The Cuban Lenny Kravitz reappears,
and the band breaks into “Uptown Funk,” and everyone in the crowd loses their mind. It gets hotter and hotter, and louder and louder, and later and later, and finally photographer Ryan and I escape outside again into the cool and silence of the Havana night.
There is one thing left to do. We walk next door to the park. There in the darkness stands a lone Cuban man in front of the statue of John Lennon. In one hand he holds a candle. In the other, a bottle of cheap rum.
We try to speak for a minute, mixing Spanish and English and hand signs. It doesn’t work.
Instead, the Cuban man pours himself a shot. He holds up the glass, offers a silent “cheers,” downs the rum and screams into the dark Havana sky.
He’s speaking a different language now, a primal language, a language with no governments or borders, a language we can all understand.
Rock ’n’ roll, hombre. Rock ’n’ roll.
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