When we got word that our trip to Cuba had been okayed, no one could believe it. There had been so many bureaucratic hurdles that when the final yes came from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and Fidel Castro himself, we were amazed. We got permission for the trip 36 hours before we left for Havana and chartered the Miami Heat’s private jet, an enormous 727 (Shaq’s seat is third row, second chair on the left.)
The bus ride to the hotel was illuminating. It was immediately clear we were no longer in a capitalist country. There were no billboards of Paris Hilton, no Starbucks, nor the omnipresent face of KFC’s Colonel. Instead, there were billboards featuring Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and “Cuba’s George Washington,” José Marti. The cars were vintage 1959, pre-U.S. embargo, some rusty, some stunning, and the buildings were grand but worn. Cuba looks poor but proud. Hotel Nacional, where we stayed was famous in prerevolutionary Cuba as the epicenter of celebrity and Mafia decadence. It was easy to imagine Al Capone and Errol Flynn swapping cigars and hookers in its long corridors. After a toast made by our government hosts and a round of mojitos (the national cocktail of choice), we headed out to see the sights.
First stop was Old Havana, where we encountered an adept caricature artist, who I believe unfairly gave me no chin, and an endless line of concession stands, where I picked up a book on Cuban baseball and a biography of Tania, who was Guevara’s revolutionary counterpart and rumored lover (and who bears a striking resemblance to my girlfriend, Sweet D). We were surprised to find a large Catholic church in the main square, which was very much in use. A salsa band was playing, and I danced my ass off with a local woman who late asked me for two dollars for the dance. This was a rip-off ’cause I’d shown her a few moves she had never seen before.
At John Lennon Park, Chris [Cornell] sat next to the statue of John and had a few words with him while local fans gathered around. We then soldiered on to the Plaza de la Revolución. This is where Fidel has spoken to crowds of over a million, for as long as four hours at a time. I gave a brief speech to the empty square, letting the Cuban people know they would soon be rocked. Then it was off to dinner at a restaurant that Ernest Hemingway frequented when he lived in Havana.
Time for the official press conference. Two hundred journalists and cameramen surrounded the table where Tim [Commerford], Brad [Wilk], Chris, and I sat to explain our visit. The questions ranged from typical rock-band fodder to pointed political questions about our views on playing a concert at the Anti-Imperialist Plaza [La Tribuna Antimperialista José Martí]. All four of us emphasized that while the focus of our trip was cultural exchange, one point was certain: The rock’n’roll embargo against Cuba was over. We vowed to play the longest concert of our careers and asked only that the Cuban people go absolutely fucking nuts in return.
Later we found ourselves at a high-rise disco where a 16-girl salsa band played the theme from Star Wars and drove us from the building. There are stray dogs all over Havana, and when we returned to our hotel, we found a little white one hanging outside our door. We named her Audio and got her some chicken and water. Then we went out to the Malecón, a stretch of sidewalk along the coast that becomes a three-mile-long party on weekend nights. Folk musicians played original compositions, and at one point, I picked up a guitar and strummed along with a percussionist while a young Lloyd Banks fan freestyled in Spanish. This set all the local kids into a rump-shaking frenzy, and we sweated the night away.
Up early the next morning. We visited the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is built on the site of an old country club where the elite in pre-revolutionary Cuba used to pat each other on the backs. It’s now where young musicians study free of charge–we were treated to performances by amazing young jazz improvisers. One of the ironies of Cuba is that there is so much emphasis on education (Cuba has a 97 percent literacy rate), but it has few tools with which to teach due to the U.S. embargo. For example, Cuba, exports doctors to poor nations, but the music school doesn’t have enough guitar or bass strings to go around.
Next we went to the venue, La Tribuna Antimperialista José Martí, a modern, open-air facility for political gatherings. The opening act was a Cuban artist named X Alfonso, whose set featured a blazing display of five percussionists. After he left the stage, the moment had arrived at last.
It was important to us that the show was free so anyone could come, and boy, did they come. We took the stage around 10p.m. and gazed out over the endless sea of 60,000 Cubans. Just as we were prepared to strike the first note of “Set It Off,” disaster struck: The drum monitors weren’t functioning. We stared at the Cubans; they stared at us. So we took a cue from the university musicians and began improvising. After about four minutes the monitors sprang to life and the concert began in earnest. We played for two and a half hours, 26 songs–the longest concert we’ve ever done. From salsa dancing to head banging, from tears of joy to shouts of rage, the Cubans were clearly rocked. In the middle of the set, I delivered a stuttering speech in Spanish, thanking the crowd for their warm welcome. X Alfonso joined us a for a jam of percussive mayhem, then we dropped “Cochise” and [Rage Against the Machine’s] “Killing in the Name,” and the place came totally unhinged. The stage was showered with notes, all with the same theme, “Thank you, we will never forget this.” We felt exactly the same way.
Hotel management presented us with pimpy, crunk-style canes and inducted us into their Hall of Fame. Our likenesses would join Fred Astaire, Errol Flynn, and Woody Harrelson, among others, on the wall. Then it was time to leave. I found a local friend to take care of little Audio, so we bid Cuba farewell with a teary goodbye and headed to customs in Miami, where they had a lot of questions for us and looked through our luggage for stray cigars or bottles of rum.
My lasting impression of the country was that the people are bright and have indomitable spirits. Americans and our Cuban friends certainly have a common love of music, and now more than ever, an understanding or the healing and redemptive powers of rock’n’roll. Hopefully, our trip to Cuba will open the door for other bands to play there. We’d like to return soon.