Lennonism in Cuba at Last


Twenty years
after his death by an assassin’s bullet, and more than thirty years since
Beatles’ music was considered part of the negative influence coming from the
English-speaking imperial powers, John Lennon has at long last been welcomed
in Cuba.

On December 8,
2000 a statue of a Lennon sitting on a park bench was unveiled—with the words
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” etched in Spanish at his
feet. Fidel Castro and other leaders paid homage. Silvio Rodriguez, one of
Cuba’s top New Song Movement singer-composers, played and sang “All You Need
Is Love.” That night, thousands flocked to an all-Beatles concert with an
amazing variety of Cuban singers and bands. It was a long time coming. In the
heyday of the Beatles, Cuba’s political leaders had other things on their
minds and paid little or no attention to this cultural phenomenon.
Unfortunately, that left a vacuum that filled with intolerance, suspicion, and
outright rejection of anything that could be associated with colonialism,
neo-colonialism, and imperialism—cultural or otherwise. Rock music fell into
this category. At that time, Cuban revolutionaries were making a valiant
attempt to recover their own history and culture, having just thrown out the
brutal Batista dictatorship with all of its made-in-the-U.S. trappings, along
with Mafia-controlled drug, gambling, and prostitution rings that they
considered part of “capitalist decadence.”

In this
context, it was perhaps understandable that they failed to perceive the
revolutionary side of the Beatles, and particularly the political development
of John Lennon. But this was not the case for many of the rising young singers
and musicians of the Cuban Revolution and, for them, the statue of Lennon
represents the culmination of a long process from intolerance and repression
to understanding and recognition.

The Story of

exemplifies this better than Silvio Rodriguez, whose name has become
synonymous with “Cancion Protesta,” “Nueva Trova,” and artistic commitment to
political causes. He was one of many whose artistic sensibilities clashed with
the culture czars of that time. Amazingly, the political commitment of many of
these young artists to the Revolution did not falter.

Silvio has made
veiled references to this period before, but has never discussed it in such
depth as in an interview with Cuban writer Jaime Sarusky in the
September-October 2000 issue of Revolucion y Cultura. Sarusky starts by
saying that, in the first decade of the revolution (1959- 1969), “there were
fabulous moments that nobody would want to forget, and others they wouldn’t
want to remember.”

comments, “You have to remember [what it was like then], because the things
that happened in that epoch, or things that didn’t happen [weren’t allowed to
happen] on television, would seem completely absurd and laughable today.” He
refers to a list of criticisms that led to his dismissal from his job at the
Cuban Radio and Television Institute, where he used to head a program called
“Mientras tanto” (Meanwhile).

First among his
“sins” was the fact that he had listed the Beatles among his musical
influences and made other favorable comments about them. Criticism two was
that he “hung out with someone” who had been confined in the notorious UMAP
camps. (These had been set up to provide rehabilitation for former gangsters,
pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and drug dealers of the Batista-Mafia period—but
also briefly tried to “rehabilitate” many people because of their long hair,
dress, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or other perceived
deviations mistakenly associated with “anti-social elements.”) Criticism three
was “that I met at the Coppelia ice cream parlor with young intellectuals from
the university who were somewhat suspicious, “and four, that “I had shown a
video clip of two people kissing on the mouth during my television program…
and that just wasn’t done on Cuban television at that time.”

So the official
reaction to the Beatles needs to be seen in this context. You also couldn’t
show women in mini-skirts or men with long hair—unless they were the rebels
who’d fought in the mountains, a strange contradiction at first glance. But
the assumption was that the rebels had grown beards and wore their hair long
during the guerrilla war because they had no choice. Now that they had come
out of the mountains and were trying to build a new society, they wanted to
look “respectable.” It didn’t dawn on them that they had set a style for
rebellious young people all over the world.

New Music

When the
higher-ups called him in, Silvio was not one to bite his tongue. Looking back,
he believes that they probably only wanted to give him a dressing-down, not
fire him. But faced with the singer-composer’s staunch defense of his friends,
of the Beatles, of the kiss, the tone escalated. Silvio walked out of the
studio where he was taping music for his program, telling his co-workers that
the program had been suspended and he’d been fired. Although ICR continued to
keep him on their employees list, the indignant singer refused to pick up his
wages. He wanted to quit, but ICR would neither let him go on the air nor
leave. Other cultural institutions—Casa de las Americas and Raquel Revuelta’s
theater group—gave him a chance to sing and play occasionally.

At the end of
1968 Alfredo Guevara (no relation to Ché, but a close friend of Fidel’s since
their school days) came back from a film festival in Brazil, all fired up
about the new music he’d heard there. He invited Silvio Rodriguez and
classical guitarist Leo Brower  to a conference about the experience in Brazil
(the Joao Goulart dictatorship had just been overthrown and “tropicalismo,”
protest song, and other new musical sounds were all the rage there). After the
conference, Guevara asked the two musicians what they thought of the idea of
creating a group dedicated to “sound experimentation,” based on Cuban and
Latin American musical roots.

Out of this
emerged the Experimental Sound Group of ICAIC, ostensibly to provide music for
films being produced by the newly created avant-garde film institute headed by
Guevara. ICAIC took in people like Silvio, Leo Brower, Sergio Vitier, Pablo
Milanes, Noel Nicola, Carlos Alfonso (who later formed the popular band Grupo
Sintesis), Pablo Menendez (who after a stretch with Sintesis formed the
equally popular Grupo Mezcla), Sara Gonzalez, and others whose names over the
years came to be identified with the revolutionary musical scene in Cuba. It
also included virtually unknown performers and rejects (for their lack of
discipline) from the arts school.

Silvio recalled
how other outcasts and misfits—most of whom now form part of Cuba’s musical
hall of fame—were added to the group. Not that the transition was easy, he
acknowledged. Not everyone liked rock. Some preferred jazz, others traditional
music. “But we all were interested in freely experimenting in whatever genre
occurred to us, without limitations.” They composed and recorded English-style
rock, traditional “son,” guaguanco…whatever fit the theme of the movie and
their mood. They didn’t limit themselves to only producing sound tracks for

But although
they worked well together and had found a shelter in ICAIC, their problems
with the sometimes self-appointed “culture czars” didn’t end there. At times,
this led to an uneasy relationship with ICAIC higher-ups, too. “It wasn’t a
bed of roses; there were arguments there, too. We—the troubadours—were really
very incendiary at that time.…”

Looking back,
Silvio now observes: “I imagine that the ideological battle that ICAIC was
carrying out at higher levels was sufficiently delicate that an uncontrollable
element such as we were could easily break up the precarious balance that had
been established. Over time I came to realize this, but at that moment I was
blind with rage.”

They were a
“wild bunch,” these artists who were refugees from the over-zealousness of
those who wanted to ban anything they believed would undermine the formation
of a revolutionary Cuban culture. Yet these cultural rebels remained firmly
committed to revolutionary ideals.

to the Revolution

It seems
astounding that Silvio, Leo Brower, and other ardent young revolutionary
musicians and artists of that time were able to see beyond the human errors
that so profoundly affected their lives, and continue to support the work of
the revolution. Probably one of the reasons they were able to do so is that
they saw beyond the individual to the process. When asked who was leading that
dogmatic and intolerant current, Silvio replied: “I think it was a lot of
people, actually. You could remember the names of those who led this or that
agency or organization, but it seems to me that the trend went beyond
individual leaders. When you don’t like something, it’s always easiest to just
eliminate it, to get it out of your sight, without analyzing why you don’t
like it, or whether or not you’re right.”

He added, “I
think that it was in part a phenomenon that was riding the tail of that
revolutionary euphoria of the sixties, fed by the enormous necessity the
Revolution had to defend itself at that time, and by the unquestionable
reality of the harassment and attacks we [the Cuban revolution] were facing
then. All this was mixed together.”

The singer did
not dispute his interviewer’s contention that it also had to do with
opportunism on the part of some people, but he felt it was more than that,
involving immaturity, lack of perspective, and the ease with which some could
manipulate the revolutionary fervor of the moment. He said, “I think that it
all stems from a too-rigid interpretation of what society is, what socialism
is, and what a socialist society is. It’s a kind of Puritanism that at its
base is very hypocritical, because it says ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ And
it’s an abuse of power by those in a position to determine that things should
be done one way rather than another, just because they say so.”

Relating the
“outlawing” of rock music to other aberrations, such as cutting off long hair,
or organizing groups who threw stones and tomatoes at the homes of those
leaving during the Mariel exodus, Silvio reflected that the manipulation of
crowds to engage in such thoughtless acts “was a mistake, a conceptual error—
though I never thought it was done in bad faith.” Silvio and others like him
held their ground through all this, refusing to perform in places that engaged
in behaviors such as forcibly cutting hair or bell-bottom trousers of students
(as occurred at the medical school and polytechnic institute) until better
minds prevailed and those absurd policies were abandoned. He added, “It was
giving free reign to feelings that were not the best, not the most humane, not
the most altruistic, that showed little sense of solidarity and were not the
most dignified expressions of human sentiment. They would not have been
supported by Marti or Ché.” Current leaders like Fidel, who might also have
rejected such behaviors, were distracted by the much greater problems they
were facing from the outside, and not focusing on the harmful aspects of what
was happening inside, as Fidel now admits.

The singers and
composers who were given shelter in the 1960s by the film institute, security
and stability to write, compose, create, emerged as the driving force of Cuban
culture over the next two decades. As they developed, new musical groups
formed and split off from the original Grupo Experimental Sonora de ICAIC. A
new era in Cuban musical culture was born.

there in its resistant beginnings, along with the magnificent African roots
and Latin trunk, with the great soul survivors of jazz, blues, and
Afro-American rhythm and blues, sprang forth among the spreading branches the
rebellious music of the 1960s, including the new sound and voice of the
Beatles, and the special genius of John Lennon.

Lennon Takes
His Place

The belated
coronation of the most politically aware of the Liverpool Four in the Cuban
homeland of revolutionary culture may also be attributed to the fact that many
of the teenagers who listened to and loved the Beatles music in the 1960s have
come into leadership positions in the 1990s. The December 8 dedication of the
statue of John Lennon in the park in the Vedado section of Havana was
introduced by Francisco Lopez Sacha, the current president of the Union of
Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and one of those who fought longest and hardest to
see that the Beatles were given their due in Cuba. Like others, he spoke of
the influence Cuban music had on the Beatles and their reciprocal influence on
Cuban music of the 1960s. Among those listening to Sacha’s passionate,
extemporaneous remarks was the Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, and alongside
him President Fidel Castro.

Sacha and
Ernesto Juan Castellanos were among those who persisted in extolling the
virtues of the Beatles throughout the years. Castellanos chronicled the
reemergence of the Beatles in Cuban music in “The Beatles in Havana,” a
summary of the discussions and debates in the first Beatles Colloquium in
1996. His newest book, El Sgto. Pimienta vino a Cuba en un submarino
(Sgt. Pepper Came to Cuba in A Yellow Submarine), was
released as part of the recent commemoration.

In his
introduction to the Castellanos book, Sacha wrote: “The Beatles’ recording
debut in October 1962, barely two weeks from the October Crisis, surprised us
in the midst of change, in the midst of a fundamental conflict between the
Cuban nation and the government of the United States. At that time the
slightest hint of “anglofonia” [love of anything British, which was not
distinguished from anything North American] in the cultural realm, any
approach to foreign musical models—especially those aimed at the youth—was
labeled ‘conflictive,” seen as an enemy to our own roots.”

He wrote that
“primitive rock,” sung in Spanish by well-known local artists, was overlooked,
“but the Beatles were virtually ostracized by the media.” He continued, “We
saw them only once in the splendor of their days of glory, when Santiago
Alvarez [Cuba’s renowned documentary filmmaker, recently deceased] had the
courage and intelligence to include them in an ICAIC newsreel. They remained
off-camera (and radio) until 1966,” he writes, yet when the popular Havana
program “Nocturno” on Radio Progreso revived them, “they’d already been
listened to by almost everyone.” Even so, he recalls, “our joy was

introduction goes on: “My generation, who were then 12, 14 and 15 years old,
had remained suspended in limbo between Paul Anka and Elvis Presley, and
limited in terms of Cuban sound by the tragic death of Benny More.”
Traditional Cuban charangas and other old-style music couldn’t fill this
gap—but the Beatles could, and did. He writes, “The Beatles dropped like a
bolt of lightning over the Motorolas and RCA Victors that had survived the
blockade, and over those Czech record players that had begun to replace them.…
Although their name wasn’t pronounced on the radio until 1967, on Chuch
Herrera’s program Musical Surprise, their seed had already been planted in our
music and their first fruits had already transformed the charanga and the
trova, so deeply rooted in popular Cuban music.”

In 1996, Sacha,
Ernesto Juan Castellanos, Luis Manuel Molina, and others who continued to
venerate the Beatles’ sound found a new space within which to pay back that
debt. They organized the “First Colloquium on the Transcendence of the
Beatles,” bringing together young and old musicians with people who reminisced
about those times and what the Beatles’ music had meant to them. The
discussion—and the music—was repeated the next year, and the next. Informal
groups began meeting regularly in people’s homes, to listen to and sing the
music they loved. Eventually, one group formed an official Beatles’ fan club,
and began meeting at a university student recreation center in Miramar.


We’re Sorry

At the ceremony,
after several speeches, Fidel Castro took one end of a long sheet that draped
the statue and Silvio Rodriguez took the other to unveil the likeness of
Lennon to loud applause and cheers. Then Silvio sang “All You Need is Love.”

Asked what he
would say to John Lennon if he could speak to him now, Fidel said “I would
tell him: I am sorry I never got to know you.” He spoke of their
commonality—that they shared many of the same dreams, and were not alone in
believing in these dreams—although, Fidel added, he’d had the good fortune to
live to see his dreams realized.

participation by Fidel, Cuban parliamentary president Ric- ardo Alarcon, and
other leaders was clearly due to the undeniably leftist political leanings of
the assassinated singer-composer. Gran- ma quoted the Cuban president:
“this sculpture in this park will remind the younger generation, who did not
know him, that Lennon was a man who defended just causes, like the struggle
against the war in Viet Nam.” He associated Lennon’s “you may say I’m a
dreamer” with the optimistic expression by Cuba’s José Martí, “the dreams of
today will be tomorrow’s realities.”

The foreign
press crowded around Fidel after the unveiling of the statue, plying him with
questions. Now 74, Fidel said he had heard about the Beatles at the height of
their success, but didn’t listen to their music back then. “I really didn’t
have much time…we had so much going on here,” adding that his musical ear is
bad and his English worse. He went on to say they were very ignorant about
music and many other subjects at that time—“I’m sorry. We were wrong. We had a
lot to learn.”

The keynote
speaker, Ricardo Alarcon, emphasized that the Lennon statue was no monument to
nostalgia. Instead, he said, “This place will always be a testimonial to
struggle…a permanent homage to a generation that wanted to transform the
world.” Alarcon continued, “In that time old imperial colonies fell, people
previously ignored arose, and their art, their literature, their ideas started
to penetrate the opulent nations. The Third World and tri- continental
solidarity were born and some discovered that in the rich north, there existed
another Third World that is also awakening.”

Of the young
rebels of those times around the world, Alarcon proclaimed, “They tried to
assault the sky, to conquer, in a single act, all justice, for the black and
the woman, for the worker and the poor, for the sick, the ignorant, and the
marginalized. They believed they could arrive at a horizon of peace between
nations and equality between all people.” It was above all a rebellion of the
young, he said. “They turned back the dull mediocrity of an unjust and false
society that reduces people to merchandise and converts everything into false

You Were
Always Among Us

Alarcon quoted
John Lennon: “The Sixties saw a revolution among the youth…a complete
revolution in the mode of thinking…. The Beatles were a part of the
revolution. We were all in that boat in the 60s.” He recalled Lennon’s
contributions to that movement, “from that memorable concert in 1963 when
Lennon asked the people who occupied the most expensive theater seats to,
instead of applauding, just rattle their jewels—to six Novembers later when he
returned the Order of the British Empire in protest of the aggression in
Vietnam and the colonialist intervention in Africa.”

Alarcon listed
other indications of Lennon’s political and social consciousness: “The refusal
to perform before an exclusively white public in Florida, in 1966; the refusal
to perform in the South Africa of apartheid; the denunciation of racism in the
United States when he arrived there to participate in concerts that had been
boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan; the calls for peace in the Middle East; the
support for young people who deserted the Yankee aggressor army and the
constant support to the Vietnamese resistance and the struggle of the Irish
people; the incessant search for new forms of expression, without ever
abandoning the roots and authentic language of the people; the repudiation of
the bourgeois system, its codes and merchandizing mechanisms; and the creation
of a corporation to combat them and defend artistic liberty, an entity to
which was attributed, even, a certain communist inspiration.”

All You Need

The concert held
later that night at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Tribunal (facing the U.S.
Interests Section building and the site of many of the demonstrations
demanding the return of Elian Gonzalez) was unexpectedly opened to the public,
instead of limited to those holding the coveted invitations. All those who
stayed until the end were able to join hands and sing “Hey Jude” together—just
like the real 1960s. For me, it had almost come full circle. But not quite. We
will never be able to go back to those times. In terms of the cultural
repression of those years in Cuba, it is hoped that enough people have learned
the lessons of the past. As Fidel said, “I’m sorry. We were wrong. We had a
lot to learn.”

returned to Lennon’s metaphor of the boat to proclaim: “Our boat will continue
sailing. Nothing will stop it. It is driven by a wind that never dies. They
will call us dreamers but our ranks will grow. We will defend the vanquished
dream and struggle to make real all dreams. Neither storms nor pirates will
hold us back. We will sail on until we reach the new world that we will know
how to build.”

Then once more
to John Lennon—“your message could not disappear because love had, and still
has, many battles to fight. With you today we see, astonished, the faces of
old comrades, amazed to be here among countless young people who were not even
born when you, over there in Liverpool, intoned ballads of love with
proletarian words and we here defied the monster.” As in the end the voice of
Silvio rings out—and the lyrics of a rebellious Irish working class balladeer
help sail us farther into the new century: “All you need is love—love is all
you need.”                    Z

Karen Lee Wald is a writer, consultant, and teacher.