Rolling Stones to rock Cuba in historic concert

The Rolling Stones (from left) Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood arrive in Havana, Cuba, March 24, 2016.
The Rolling Stones (from left) Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood arrive in Havana, Cuba, March 24, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

HAVANA (AFP) - The Rolling Stones made final preparations for their first-ever concert in Havana on Friday, with Cubans once banned from even listening to rock 'n roll expected to attend in huge numbers.

Although there were no posters or other visible signs of the event around the Cuban capital, which does not allow street advertising, news spread by word of mouth and as many as 500,000 people were forecast to gather in the Ciudad Deportivo sports complex.

A stage 80m long was erected, flanked by 10 giant video screens in a stadium-level production that is the most advanced Cuba has seen.

Fans turning up early in the morning ahead of the gig, due to start at about 8.30pm (8.30am on Saturday, Singapore time), said the Stones' appearance showed that Cuba is finally reintegrating with the rest of the world after decades of ideological and economic isolation.

"I think I'm going to cry," said Miguel Garcia, 62, who had come by bus from Cienfuegos in the south of Cuba and slept on the sports field ahead of the show.

"This concert is going to be the key to the door closing us in. The Rolling Stones are going to open it so that Cuba has more choices of rock bands, especially from the era we were unable to participate in."

Mick Jagger, 72, Keith Richards, 72, Charlie Watts, 74, and Ronnie Wood, 68, flew in late on Thursday, arriving just two days after a political superstar, US President Barack Obama, ended his historic visit aimed at overcoming more than half a century of US-Cuban hostility.

The twin events added up to a tumultuous week for Cuba, which has been run by Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul at the head of the Communist Party ever since their guerilla army drove out a US-backed regime in 1959.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, rock 'n roll was discouraged to varying degrees, leading during the most repressive years to clandestine listening sessions and an underground trade in smuggled records and cassettes.

"A Rolling Stones concert in Havana? It's a dream," said Eddie Escobar, 45, who founded one of Havana's few clubs for live rock music, the Yellow Submarine.

He remembers secretly searching for US commercial radio frequencies so that he could hear the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the like.

"Rock music, I hope, will open everything else - politics, the economy, the Internet. We're 20 years behind absolutely everything," Escobar said.

Cuban state media forecast that about half a million people were to fill the playing fields, with music industry magazine Billboard reporting that as many people again could swarm into neighbouring streets.

With no tickets on sale, it was impossible to confirm the estimates, but a million fans would amount to one of every 11 Cubans.

The concert - a surprise addition at the end of the Rolling Stones' Latin America tour - was the first by any group of that stature in Cuba and the Stones had to start from scratch.

Organisers told Billboard that the production meant importing gear in 61 sea containers and a packed Boeing 747.

The band called on fans via Twitter to vote for one of four songs - Get Off My cloud, All Down The Line, She's So Cold, and You Got Me Rocking - to be included on the playlist.

But few Cubans, where Internet is not widely available, have access to Twitter.