This fall, I was awarded a Keller Family Venture Grant by Colorado College to investigate two of my favorite things: The Beatles and Havana. During my two months studying abroad in Havana last winter, I was struck by such a clear Beatles presence not only in my neighborhood of Vedado, but also in those surrounding. I decided I needed to return to understand more fully where this presence came from; after all, the Beatles never actually set foot in Cuba. Below is what I found, through research and interviewing locals.
My original project proposal:
How can something continually influence a culture it directly contradicts? Last year, I was privileged to study Spanish in Cuba with Colorado College. I immediately became immersed in the lively culture – claves reverberating through streets, passionate salsa dancers in the clubs, and street artists displaying works of beauty and depth. One aspect of the culture that I truly did not expect to encounter, however, was that of American rock and roll. Cubans deeply resent the embargo the United States placed on their country in 1958, as it strangled Cuba’s access to resources. Virtually anything having to do with the United States can breed animosity or mockery among Cubans, but rock and roll stands apart. More importantly, the Beatles stand apart.
As mentioned in my proposal, in 1996, the Cuban Writers and Artists’ Union in Havana held a Beatles colloquium. Though the event coordinator, Ernesto Juan Castellanos, was unable to get the most prominent figures to come (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Yoko Ono), many writers and affiliates of the Beatles either sent or brought information to share. Presenters gave lectures and speeches, read essays, and discussed various ways the Beatles made themselves known on an island where rock and roll was practically illegal. Castellanos took all of these talks and essays and organized them into a book, written in Spanish, The Beatles in Cuba: A Magical Mystery Tour. This book was an enormous aid for me. From it, I gleaned many reasons why the Beatles were able to rise to great popularity in Havana – reasons I could then reject or corroborate through interviewing Cubans themselves.
I tried to make this project as flexible as possible, but with clear goals in mind. Therefore, I made a list of the places I wanted to see and to go and a list of questions to ask people. However, that’s about as far as I could get, organizationally. Accessing information about establishments – their hours, who works there, if the establishment is still open or even exists – can be impossible in Cuba. So I wasn’t going to force it. Similarly, Cubans are very gregarious people; you never know where a conversation may end up with them. Therefore, I came up with the following questions merely as a reference, a basis to start conversation, allowing my interviews more freedom.
Returning to Cuba was like reuniting with an old friend. The humid air, long lines, and 50s automobiles puffing out smoke, while a nuisance by the end of my time there last winter, were a comfort. I easily made it to my homestay – the house of my “Cuban grandparents,” Angelita and Silvino – and settled in.
The first night, I was too exhausted to interview, but still went to Submarino Amarillo for their cover band (it was Saturday, and Saturdays are the best at Submarino). It was definitely different returning there alone, but it allowed me to take in many observations, both old and new.
The first person I spoke to in this project was my host mom, Angelita. I simply asked her what she knew of the Beatles during the 60s. She explained that unfortunately, she knows little; at that time, her father had sent her and the family outside of the city to protect them. She assured me, however, that younger Cubans would certainly talk to me about it. While there was a lot of censorship and ultimately the prohibition of rock and roll, Cuba was and remains “un mundo de arte,” an art world. Middle-aged Cubans lived this world of art; listening to the Beatles was practically a part of their education, though self-taught. “La historia no se puede borrar,” – “The history [of the Beatles in Cuba] cannot be erased,” she explained. When Parque John Lennon was created, Cubans weren’t opposed. Angelita noted that you can’t deny how bueníssimo the Beatles’ music is, and she’s glad that Cubans of all ages now can freely enjoy it. She believes that the Beatles are still important in Cuba because they speak to the reality of life during the 60s – a reality that “no se puede ocultar,” or cannot be hidden. I particularly like how she used “ocultar,” a verb meaning “kept out of sight” or “disguised.”
Miramar, a neighborhood just west of Vedado, was another location on the agenda. I originally wanted to see the Anfiteatro de Marianao where Los Pacíficos played, but judging from the maps and my knowledge of the taxi system in Cuba, I was dubious I could find it or even get there. For all I knew, the building could be abandoned. Instead, I thought I could perhaps go to the British Embassy, where Ernesto Juan Castellanos (organizer of the Beatles colloquium) first went in his pursuit to create the event. I found it quite easily, but of course, it was closed. I wondered, however, if it was what I was looking for – would it really give me a Cuban perspective of the Beatles? I eventually decided not. However, it was still worth the visit; posters around the embassy of Ed Sheeran and Emeli Sandé saying MUSIC IS GREAT demonstrate the continued presence of British musicians in Cuba.
One day, while I was making my way to various other leads, I passed by Submarino again. This time, the park caretaker and Imagine shop owner flagged me down, saying that when I returned to Submarino, I must talk to the director. He, they explained, knows all about the subject and is very invested in the Beatles’ history in Cuba. Intrigued, I returned at 2:00 for the matinee, and explained to a waiter what my project was. He too said that I needed to speak to the director, but that he wouldn’t be around until around 5:00. Grateful for the help, I decided to rest and return later.
I still had more places to check out. First, the Teatro Nacional, where Los Pacíficos once played. I got there and took pictures, but wasn’t allowed in – you can only enter with tickets for shows, and none were happening. I then made my way to the Unión de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos, where the Beatles colloquium was held. I explained my project to the desk lady, who brought me to the music office. There, a man told me to take a seat and wait. In a few minutes, he returned, saying in perfect English, “Since I have this opportunity to speak English, I am going to take it to practice. You need to go to this address, not far from here. Someone will be able to talk to you there.” I studied the piece of paper, indicating the address for the Institute for Cuban Music, three blocks away. I thanked him for his help and went on my way.
Angelita had recommended that I speak to her neighbor, Heidi, because she was in Havana during the era of the Beatles. I knew Heidi already, as two of my friends, Lucy and Eva, had lived with her while we all were studying in Vedado last winter. Lucy has actually been in and out of Havana the past few months, working, and had just arrived the night before. I went over that afternoon and was greeted warmly by both her and Heidi.
Heidi explained that she was very, very young at the time of the Revolution’s success. It was her mother that I needed to talk to. As I caught up with Lucy, Heidi’s mom emerged tentatively from the house with a smile. After giving my little project speech, she effortlessly began giving me details. “I don’t know if the youth today really like the Beatles now,” she began. “They like reggaetón,” I replied. But the Beatles were certainly popular with the youth back then. Unlike the Submarino director, she claims the band was prohibited, but it wasn’t impossible to listen to them. Like the woman at the Institute said, people regularly played Beatles music in their homes, and “No one would knock on your door.” You just couldn’t necessarily enjoy the Beatles on the radio or TV, nor could you buy the records in Cuba. At one point, the government even went on a crusade to burn the records. It didn’t really matter; she enjoyed listening to them whenever. “Trataba copiar la letra,” she said. “I tried to write down the lyrics.” Her mother actually owned a piano and she would try her best to play it while singing the words she could remember. The emotion of the music is what she liked best, her favorite songs being “Anna” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
In La Habana Vieja, Old Havana, you can find lots of posters for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, particularly when the book market is open in Plaza de las Armas. You can also catch other small Beatles references here and there. Teatro Martí, for example, is another location that the Beatles cover band, Los Pacíficos, would play in the 60s. Just stopping for lunch at my favorite crepe place, I could hear “Let It Be” over the speakers, too.
In addition to Old Havana, in neighborhoods to its west, Centro Habana and Vedado, you can also find different stations for Radio Cuba, which would play – or perhaps, not play – Beatles music during the 60s. Sometimes, only Spanish versions of the songs were allowed. Centro Habana is where the University is located, and its theater is another locale of Los Pacíficos. And finally, there is the romantic Malecón. The Malecón is the shoreline that spans the entire length of the northern coast of Havana. A long, deteriorating sidewalk with a wall that bears the force of the most brutal waves, the Malecón is the most iconic spot in Cuba. Since the average Cuban salary is $24, taking someone on a date can be very costly. Therefore, it is acceptable and even encouraged to take someone out for a long, romantic sunset walk along the Malecón. What adds to this romance? The fact that Cubans would tune into “Love Me Do,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and “Something” on its very concerte.
I love Cuba. I love the Beatles. After seeing Submarino Amarillo last year, it only seemed natural to combine the two into a project that would allow me to foster my love for them. What came of this project was everything I had hoped for: a chance to return to my favorite city and speak to wonderful people on a common interest. And along the way, I learned a good deal of rock and roll history.
I can now list countless reasons that the Beatles are popular in Havana. Their revolutionary image and ideals, particularly Lennon’s, mirroring those of el Che and Fidel. The way that they illustrate a chapter of Cuba’s history, immediately after the Revolution. Their emotional effect on listeners, through unique and adapted styles. The overall quality of their sound. But what it seems to boil down to, just as it likely does in many countries, is their timelessness among families. Cuban parents can freely listen to the Beatles at home now, full of nostalgia and perhaps wistfulness that they are no longer engaging in a “rebellious” act. And their children can listen in – not just on the music, but the history that comes with it. And so the Beatles live on.
Castellanos Ernesto, Juan. Los Beatles en Cuba: Un viaje mágico y misterioso. Ediciónes UNIÓN, Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, 1997.
Hernandez, Deborah Pacini, and Reebee Garofalo. “Between Rock and a Hard Place: Negotiating Rock in Revolutionary Cuba, 1960-1980.” Rockin Las Americas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America, Pitt Illuminations, 2004, pp. 43–67, https://books.google.com/books?id=-o51rAMJEUIC&pg=PA43&dq=Between+Rock+and+a+Hard+Place:+Negotiating+Rock+in+Revolutionary+Cuba,+1960-1980&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj3-qa9z77YAhVhct8KHWX2D7cQ6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q=Between%20Rock%20and%20a%20Hard%20Place%3A%20Negotiating%20Rock%20in%20Revolutionary%20Cuba%2C%201960-1980&f=false.