News & Politics
Sgt. Pepper Meets Fidel Castro: The Beatles in Cuba
April 25, 2000
Thirty years after The Beatles helped ignite our own "cultural revolution," they're doing it again: in Cuba, which is emerging from a time warp into a full-blown case of Beatlemania. Over two hundred people gathered in Havana's Cuba Pavilion in mid-October for what was billed as the "First International Colloquium on the Transcendency of the Beatles,"-- a three day fest of celebration, analyses and reminiscences of the Beatles' strange, semi-underground, history in Cuba.Amid Havana's sweltering political intrigues, as Castro loosens the cultural tap bands can be found in the city's booming music scene playing Beatles covers, meringue style; Beatle song references have become popular cultural markers for some of Cuba's most famous literary characters; and Lennon-McCartney lyrics are being used in schools around the country to teach English. At the Colloquium, the newly surfacing Beatles obsession was in full-bloom. From a podium festooned with 'Merseybeat' artwork supplied by the British Embassy in Havana, Cuban scholars assessed the "cultural impact of the Beatles" on the country's youth; a local comedian produced an analysis of "humor" in the work of the Liverpool foursome; and some of Cuba's top musicians confessed to the Beatles influence on their music (several musicologists countered with an assertion that traces of Cuba's own lively meringue and bolero musical forms infiltrated such Beatles numbers as And I Love Her and Till There Was You).The Cuban fans demonstrated that they could hold their own in any auditorium of Beatles enthusiasts, sustaining lively critiques of Capitol Records mishandling of the band's early American releases, and questioning whether the two "new" Beatles songs -- Free as a Bird and Real Love -- actually qualify as Beatle tunes, or are little more than backup sessions for John Lennon. In one session, Ernesto Juan Castellanos, the 33-year-old organizer of the event, expounded upon the commercialization of the Beatles in a presentation on the recently issued Beatles Anthologies aptly entitled, 'The (Apple) Empire Strikes Back'. The most lively discussion was reserved for a reassessment of the ban placed on the Beatles music by the Castro regime between 1964-1966. In those years, when Castro was trying to promote the revolutionary roots of indigenous Cuban music, it was illegal to play the Beatles or any other Western music. The Beatles became like an underground secret, their music passed from hand to hand like a musical samizdat -- habits which persisted even when the strict ban was lifted in 1966.Most everybody attending the Colloquium, including officials of the government-sponsored Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNIAC), admitted that the ban was a mistake. One of the highpoints was a replaying of the tape from the first Beatles show permitted on Cuban radio, in 1971, whose host was received like a hero. "The Beatles," says Castellanos, "were seen as having something to do with America. But the Beatles have nothing to do with America....Except that today, the Beatles influence in Cuba is much like it was in the United States in the 1960's. It is sensual and liberating, in everything from fashion to politics." Castellanos, 33, has been a Beatles fan since his older brother handed him a copy of Revolver when he was eight years old. As a teenager, Castellanos became one of hundreds of Cubans who traded actively in Beatles imports and bootlegs obtained from abroad; he started his own informal fan club, and was one of the first to use the band's lyrics for teaching English to the next generation of Fidelistas. "Most of their early music is 'I love you, you love me', seven and eight year olds can understand that," says Castellanos, who now works as an English translator. "Then with older kids we move into Magical Mystery Tour or Sgt. Peppers -- which are more complicated, filled with metaphors and poetry...Psych-e-del-ic, too," he adds, pronouncing each syllable like it was a ticket to another, as yet unfamiliar, world.Most recently, Castellanos, who has never traveled outside of Cuba, hosted the country's first Beatles television show, Encuentros con los Beatles, spinning discs obtained from friends and sharing Beatles gossip every Sunday afternoon.Castellanos was not averse to pointing out one of the many ironies that pervaded the conference, as the country that has spent the last three decades talking revolution suddenly confronted those who were singing it -- many of whom, as in the United States, would fall under police suspicion for sporting the accountrements of the counter-culture. "When people first started hearing the Beatles in Cuba, they started wearing different kind of clothes, jeans, leather jackets, longer hair. They talked about 'revolution', they identified with Che Guevara. When the police would arrest them for wearing long hair, they would say, 'But when Che and Fidel came out of the mountains [to take control of Havana in 1959], they were wearing their hair long." The Colloquium had the endorsement of the UNIAC, and was assisted with logistics by UNESCO and the British Embassy in Havana -- which even provided Castellanos with a diplomatic pouch to send a personal invitation to Yoko Ono in New York (she respectfully declined, as did Paul McCartney and the Beatles producer George Martin, who sent their encouragement) In a year in which the Beatles' rereleases have made 1996 their most profitable year ever as a band, the conference was all the more remarkable because it was only last year that new Beatles CDs became available at all in Cuba (though, priced at more than $20 a disc, far out of the price range of most Cubans). In the end, the organizers collected names of at least a hundred members of what Castellanos termed, "the first official Beatles fan club in Cuba." And a culminating concert on November 1st, delayed for two weeks by Hurricane Lilly, featured more than a dozen Cuban bands -- representing the latest in Cuban rock, salsa, heavy metal, bolero and a 40-piece choir from the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television -- playing a night of Beatles covers.Just as in Eastern Europe, where rock n'roll helped tear down cultural and political divisions, rock is having its liberating effects in Cuba, where the revolutionary icon, Granma, is now more than half her way to sixty-four, and making room for lovely Rita.