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Posted May 11, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Music

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John Norris | MTV.com

I admit I have been lucky enough to visit many of the places in the world I’d always wanted to, but among those places on my “gotta see — and gotta see soon” list was Cuba. I’d definitely considered going the, ahem, “third country” route in the past, but it never happened. And going to Cuba for work? I thought that was unlikely, and certainly never thought I’d be going because an American band was going to be playing in Havana, of all places.

But that’s exactly what happened this week, when we got the word that Audioslave had achieved what most U.S. artists wouldn’t even think possible — they had booked a trip to Havana to play a free outdoor concert for as many hard rock-starved fans as wanted to attend.

We flew to Atlanta, and the next morning we made it to a private terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to board not just any old private jet, mind you, but the Miami Heat’s own jet, for the flight to the Caribbean. (Seems the Heat, having already secured a berth in the second round of the NBA playoffs and taking it easy for the week, could spare their ride.) Our five-person MTV News team boarded and awaited the arrival of the band’s crew, managers, road management, their own video crew (they’ll be releasing a DVD of the trip) and then the guys themselves ó Brad, Tim, Chris and the man that you had to figure was behind this whole idea, the man who’s always worn his politics on his sleeve like a badge of honor, the guitar god with a conscience: Tom Morello.

But it quickly became apparent that politics and polemic were not the point of this trip. In a quick airborne interview, Morello talked about the excitement of bringing Audioslave’s brand of hard rock to the Cuban masses, and said he’d been dreaming of playing there for years. He insisted the point of this trip was not to make a political statement, but to take part in a musical cultural exchange.

After a half-hour stop in Miami (apparently, if you fly from the U.S., you can only fly into Cuba via Miami), the Heat plane (now unofficially designated “Audioslave One”) took off for what I can only call the most exhilarating 30-minute plane ride of my life. To leave the Florida Keys and head into Cuban airspace was truly amazing. Call it the appeal of the “forbidden”; whatever it was, it was a new kind of exciting.

As has been everything we have seen since we got here. From the landing at Jose MartÝ Airport ó where the Cuban press seemed fascinated, and maybe a little unsure of, what to make of this American band that had seemingly done the impossible ó to the drive from the airport, where you are immediately struck by ó what? Yes, the ‘50s cars; yes, the crowded buses; yes, the generally shabby condition of things. But more than anything? No McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no Wal-Mart and no billboards trying to sell you stuff. Well that’s not entirely true. Plenty of billboards. What they’re selling, though, is not material, but philosophy: “Viva La Revolucion!” “La Obra De La Revolucion Es Invincible” and the simple “Vamos Bien,” featuring a beaming Fidel Castro. This may have been a trip about cultural exchange, but there is simply no escaping politics in Cuba. It’s everywhere.

Once settled into our hotel ó La Nacional, Cuba’s most famous and infamous hotel, having once been a favorite haunt of gangster Meyer Lansky ó our entourage, which numbered about 30, hit the town to take in some sights. First stop, as it is for most visitors here: Old Havana, the colonial part of town where 500 years of architecture comes together, some of it beautifully preserved and/or restored, a lot of it in worse shape. Along with the band, we listened to our guide explain the history of the fortress known as Castillo De La Real Fuerza. We visited the Plaza De Las Armas, where each of the guys got a 60-second caricature drawn by one of the enterprising locals, and Tom picked up a couple of books ó one on Cuban music, the other on baseball. We walked the narrow streets of La Vieja Habana, saw Ernest Hemingway’s old house, and Brad and Timmy said that, like Tom, they’d been wanting to come here since the days of Rage.

Finally after a trip to Cathedral Square, where Morello cut a rug with a local woman to some mariachi music, and an encounter with possibly the friendliest stray dog on the planet (he wanted to go home with Wilk), we boarded the bus for some politics.

That came in the form of the Plaza De La Revolucion. Dominated by a monument to Cuban hero Jose MartÝ and surrounded by revolutionary billboards, government buildings, an imposing image of Che Guevara and lots and lots of asphalt, the plaza is the place in Havana where that old Soviet-style socialism feels most prevalent.

Enough Lenin ó time for Lennon. We made a quick stop to the very green John Lennon Park, where Chris Cornell struck a pose on the park bench next to the bronze statue of the former Beatle.

Dinnertime meant more history: Floridita restaurant was a favorite hangout of Hemingway’s (there’s a great shot of Papa and Fidel on the wall) and it’s where the daiquiri was invented. Yes, I had one.

Day 2? The band made an early-morning stop at a local radio station, where the DJ told Cornell he had “not only one of the greatest voices of all time, but of all genres of music.” That was followed by a private tour of the Karl Marx Theatre, and then back to the hotel for a midday press conference for a fascinated throng of Cuban reporters. Questions ranged from the provocative (“How does it feel to be playing a venue known as the ‘Anti-Imperialist Tribunal’?”) to the simple (“How did you leave your old bands to form Audioslave?” Brad: “Well for us it was simple; we no longer had a singer”) to the downright bizarre (“Chris, could you sing some of ‘Black Hole Sun’ for us?”).

We got some one-on-one time with the guys after that, and at the halfway point of this unprecedented trip, they still seemed elated, maybe even more so. They’re not gonna talk politics (at least not as long as they’re here). They’re not gonna give too many details about how this unimaginable trip became a reality (but they are loving the Cuban people, revelling in the Cuban culture and the warm welcome and getting set to play the “loudest concert Havana has ever heard” along the Malecon tomorrow night). As Morello said, “There’s been an embargo against rock and roll for too long, and at least that embargo is coming to and end.”

It should be quite a show.

ó John Norris

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 11, 2005 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    From Audioslave:

    The concert was authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Insituto Cubano de la Musica, and is an effort to bring the freedom of musical expression to the youth of Cuba. In a statement, Audioslave said, “Kids are the same all over the world, and we are extremely proud and excited to bring rock ‘n’ roll to the youth of Cuba. It’ all about the music, and free expression of music crosses all barriers. This is a rare opportunity, and we are grateful and honored to have the support of both countries.”

    PUBLISHER: After the concert, Audioslave should have yelled “Mr. Bush, tear down this wall”.

    Will music crack the wall of The Embargo?

    Cuba consulting services

  2. Follow up post #2 added on May 11, 2005 by Arts with 2 total posts

    Hands Across Havana is a visual art initiative that I had the pleasure of coordinating and presenting while participating on a worker-to-worker exchange program this past March in Havana, Cuba. The exchange, coordinated by Co-Development Canada and CUPE BC’ International Solidarity Committee, offered six CUPE members from across British Columbia an experience of a lifetime. One of my main goals and objectives while participating on the exchange was to create a meaningful visual arts project. The project first began late February at Second Street Community School in Burnaby. I presented the details of my special project and inspired by their new assignment, the children decorated the interior of their traced handprints using mixed media and collage. Each hand was then carefully mounted and sent to Cuba along with a personal letter of friendship. Once I arrived in Cuba I was informed that I would be working at the Havana Zoo. Initially I was somewhat apprehensive, yet excited to have such an unusual job placement. I was a bit nervous because I was unsure as to whether I would have the necessary ingredient to complete my project - children! Fortunately, they had an education center at the Havana Zoo where students from local schools attended educational and art programs to learn about conservation, animal habitat and future employment opportunities at the Zoo. With support from my translator Dr. Robmay Garcia (a young veterinarian), my two Cuban counter parts Maricele and Liberty, and 50 elementary school students from central Havana, my project had become a success. We were able to create some amazing and powerful works of art!
    As I reflect on my experience with Hands Across Havana I recognize how it has deeply impacted my perspective as an artist, recreation leader, and art educator. Art touches each of us in different ways. As artists we all have the ability to connect people, countries, and perspectives. I recognize that traveling to another country is not available to everyone, but you don’t have to leave Canada or your own community in order to make a difference.

    For more details on the project or, to have Diane visit your school or organization to share her experience please feel free to email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  3. Follow up post #3 added on January 08, 2006 by jim

    After the concert, Audioslave should have yelled” Mr Castro, tear down this wall.”...what is he afraid of???...why does he think so many people are “dying” to get off of that hellish island?

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