VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press
Cuban rockers and families alike went wild for Rick Wakeman in a seaside concert, rushing to the stage when the former Yes star grabbed a portable keyboard and started jamming in the crowd.
Wakeman and the New English Rock Ensemble, or NERE, played a two-hour set late Sunday for several hundred Cubans in Havana’s open-air Anti-imperialist Plaza on the Malecon, the city’s famed seawall.
“This is the best rock music that has ever been played on this island,” said an enthusiastic Jose Negrin, 40, who came with his wife and 15-year-old son.
Father and son looked on in fascination, playing their own imaginary keyboards in the air, as Wakeman’s fingers flew around several pianos and electric synthesizers.
The Brit wore a sequined red, white and gold cape as he played center-stage, while the NERE’s lead singer sported a traditional tropical shirt known as a guayabera.
Wakeman traded the cape for a glittery purple jacket and a wizard’s hat when he came down to play in the crowd, grabbing a Cuban girl to come onstage and hold his portable keyboard as he continued to play, without missing a beat.
The rock star devoted most of the concert to classic tunes from the 1970s, including songs from his “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.”
The crowd roared when he played “Arthur” - the theme song for a weekly cultural program on Cuban television called “History of Cinema.”
Women held up “Rick Wakeman, I love you,” signs, as well as posters calling him “The Master of Keyboards.”
Several father-and-son pairs were in the crowd, as well as rockers wearing tattered jeans and heavy-metal T-shirts. Tattoos and body piercings rarely seen at concerts in the land of salsa and son were abundant, as was long hair.
“It used to be that you were discriminated against in Cuba for having long hair,” Lazaro Perez, a 33-year-old ceramic artist with flowing tresses, said of the 1970s and early 1980s. “Rockers were persecuted, told they were against the (Cuban) revolution. But that’s long gone - we’re in 2005 now.”
Perez said he was extremely impressed with NERE.
“I’ve never seen this quality of rock music here in Cuba,” he said. “All the musicians have astonished me.”
Energetic drum and guitar solos were aptly appreciated by the crowd, as were lively opening performances by Synthesis, an Afro-Cuban group popular among several generations on the island, and Cross Fire, a Swiss-Italian blues and rock group.
Wakeman, on his first Cuba tour, took a quick break to address the crowd, speaking in English.
“We have had such a wonderful time here, you have made us so welcome,” Wakeman said. “We really look forward to coming back and seeing you, very soon.”
In a news conference last week, Wakeman said he hopes to return to the island several times to play integrated music alongside Cuban artists.
Sunday’s concert was Wakeman’s third, after performing Friday and Saturday nights at Havana’s Karl Marx theater. He was scheduled to visit a memorial to revolutionary fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara on Monday before leaving the island.
Though he declined to make any political remarks about communist Cuba last week, on Sunday the rock star waved a huge Cuban flag on stage during his finale.
The stage’s backdrop, directly in front of the United State’s diplomatic mission in Havana, also contained the Cuban slogan, “Trenches filled with ideas are worth more than trenches filled with stones.”
At night’s end, the band’s drummer threw his sticks into the crowd, then Wakeman took a majestic bow before leaving the stage, the tails of his cape flowing behind him.