The next visitors to blow Cubans’ minds: The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones in San Diego, California on May 24, 2015.

“For my generation, the Rolling Stones’ music still tastes of the forbidden,” recalls artist Lisette Padilla, 49, over iced tea and cigarettes at her apartment in Old Havana.

The British rock legends are finally coming to Cuba to play a free, open-air concert Friday for an expected audience of 400,000.

It’s not that Mick Jagger and company are the first band from outside the country to play here. The likes of Billy Joel, rapper Common, Welsh socialist rockers the Manic Street Preachers and California’s Audioslave are among the stars to have played on the island. But, the Stones’ majorly anticipated arrival — the very week of the historic visit by US President Barack Obama — strikes a deep chord with Cuban rock fans.

“I’m excited about the show — Keith Richards is one of my favorite guitar-players; the harmonies he plays are just delicious — but it’s more the moment itself that I’m interested in,” says the soft-spoken mother of Camila, 26, and Helena, 16. “It’s going to be an explosion, emotionally. I’m curious about how everyone’s going to behave when we see these symbols of the forbidden in front of us at last.”

Artist Lisette Padilla, 49, at her apartment in Havana. Since her work has been censored in her home country, she puts on exhibits in Spain and Mexico.
Artist Lisette Padilla, 49, at her apartment in Havana. Since her work has been censored in her home country, she puts on exhibits in Spain and Mexico.Mike Blake/Reuters
It’s a far cry from her childhood and teenage years.

“I was born in 1966, when The Beatles, the Stones, and anything American or British was banned,” she explains.

“The Russians gave us everything — technology, clothes, consumer goods — because of the United States’ trade embargo. But the best thing the Russians ever gave us was the BEF radio — this huge thing like a bank-safe, with such a strong receiver that we could put them up on a rooftop or drag them down to the beach to pick up American stations,” she adds. “It was a repressive time: gay people were being put in prison, protest rockers would get pulled off stage for criticizing the government, and the police would beat up their fans.”

Padilla’s art is provocative and political, reworking national Cuban mottos into corporate logos. Her work is censored in her home country, so she takes advantage of her dual Spanish-Cuban citizenship to put on exhibitions abroad.

“People ask why I don’t live in those countries, but Cuba is my home,” she says. “We have a stronger social contract here. If I’m hungry, I know who to ask for food. We don’t have the same social liberties as other countries, but I’ve never seen a fraternal bond like this in other countries, either.”

For Padilla, this civic connection is the long-term legacy of a time when “everybody believed in the national project.”

Alberto, 21, wears a shirt with the Rolling Stones logo in Havana.
Alberto, 21, wears a shirt with the Rolling Stones logo in Havana.Enrique de la Osa/Reuters
“I grew up loving the revolution,” Padilla says. “On Sundays, whole families would travel out to the fields to cut sugar cane and plant potatoes — even tiny children. People were well paid. We had everything we could want. It took until 1989, when the USSR collapsed, for the illusion to break. We realized then that Russia was keeping the whole thing going. We had food shortages so bad that, when I gave birth to Camila, I honestly thought she would starve. We used to fry bits of cloth with lemon, salt, and breadcrumbs to keep hunger away.”

Writer and artist Dashiell Hernandez, 38, was a teenager during those years. “We couldn’t afford food, so how could we buy music? We’d pass albums around like samizdat, taping them off the radio, copying tapes. It was like living in ‘The Master and Margarita,’” he recalled in a phone interview, a reference to Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1938 satire on Stalinism. “While not prohibited, all of these things were seen as an ideological threat.”

Hernandez is stoked about the free show by “Los Rolling,” as they’re sometimes called in Cuba. But he’s really a grunge fan at heart: “While I’d be a lot more excited if it was the Pixies or Pearl Jam playing next week, it’s pretty cool that the Stones are coming.”

The show will be a family day out for Padilla and her daughters. “They like old rock, but they’re more into Skrillex and emo stuff, because that is hard to get right now,” she says wistfully.

“You see kids hanging around outside hotels with WiFi signal waiting for a single song to download. The generations change, but this remains the case for Cubans,” she says. “What’s forbidden holds an attraction.”

This story was first published by GlobalPost.

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