A park named after rock
Havana is not a city of many parks. Other Latin American capitals surpass it by far, even some of the cities in country, like Holguín and Sancti Spíritus. But something in favor of Havana is that most of its parks have interesting stories to tell, they have the same original design of other times and that romantic air of Spanish tradition. It’s a matter of neighborhood pride in more than one case. That’s why it’s easier to identify them by name.
One of them took its current name from a rather recent story. A name chosen by people, passersby, those who followed the tradition of trova and singing that freshens up the hot nights of any Cuban city. We are talking about Lennon Park, located at the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución. It’s even more known now, since sculptor José Villa Soberón presented a statue of the famous author of “Imagine” to the Cuban people 20 years ago. There, he sat Lennon forever, on 17th St., between 6th and 8th, in Vedado.
There is no tourist coming to our city that does not have, among other countless unforgettable moments, that of being able to sit next to Lennon. Maybe tell him something foolish and take, of course, a few pictures, selfies, videos, that are later “uploaded” to the tangle of webs surrounding the world.
The story behind placing this ex-Beatle monument in a highly populated Caribbean city goes back to mid-60s from last century.
Cuba, the Beatles, that moment
Like in many cultural contexts, rock was not always well seen at the beginning of the revolutionary Cuban culture, back in the 60s. It’s obvious that leaders had a biased perception of rock, they actually became the center of a prejudice that was probably more naïve than ideologically committed. The Beatles, then, were the greatest symbol of disagreement with part of the new generations.
While the new acclaimed British quartet conquered the world through innovative visions of rock music, Cubans lived in the middle of one of the tensest moments of the Cuba-USA conflict. Recent events were already part of history: the failed invasion to the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the so-called Missile Crisis in October 1962, something that put the world at the brink of a nuclear holocaust, and the “embargo” had already began, what has always been known in Cuba as “blockade”.
Everything that might have sounded “American”, like Coca Cola, chewing gums, jeans, the rock played by The Beatles, generated a rejection attitude that, to be fair, it was not only by policy makers and officials, but also by average people: teachers, workers and farmers with lovely moral principles, who understood, and were right to think so, that nationalism was the term of the day. For many, it was also a synonym of patriotism. So that “alien stuff” was just traces of the culture of the enemy.
What was the relation between the clear need of a strong formation of the new generations of Cubans and the image of four extravagant, long-haired young men in tight pants who, on top of all, sang in the language of the “enemy”?
Cuba, the Beatles, that music
Even if there wasn’t such attitude towards the British quartet, the Beatles’ records, as many other things, could not be sold in Cuba due to strictly commercial problems. And they were never sold. They were, of course, never broadcast by the radio, much less the Cuban television.
To be fairly partial, for an average Cuban, hard does not necessarily mean impossible, and nothing suits that better than a phrase from those days: “you gotta make your own path”. So, Beatles’ records came to the country with all travelers arriving from abroad, most of all, with all the Cubans that went either to USSR, Bulgaria, or Tanzania as part of a collaborators contingent. We can also include some recalcitrant officials who felt totally committed to their teenage children.
Then, records went from hand to hand, from party to party. The Long plays with those ghostly prints were “invented”. Having an LP was the best way to be invited to every “quinceañera” party, and to any meeting of young intellectuals in which you know you are changing the world, even though all attempts eventually fail. That’s how young people back then used to listen to the Beatles.
Beyond any particular anecdote, and in the middle of a context of contradictions, an intense generational debate took place, which allowed many to understand that music and its contents are not disposable products, on the contrary, they can trigger storms in the same way that can unite minds and wills (1).
Note (1): There was a clear censorship to their music in radio and television, and certainly some excess in the appreciation of their influence by some officials, but some have exaggerated when comparing this to the violent censorship exerted during Pinochet’s government, when a young Chilean was arrested with some records by Cuban musicians Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés.
Such level of misunderstanding loosened up bit by bit, as young film makers, officials and even policy makers arrived to the Cuban radio and television as participants of this generational confrontation with a more open and up-to date position.
Many of them were university graduates from true cultural formation workshops like Televisión Universitaria (2) and El Caimán Barbudo (3).
Note (2): University Television was, back in those years, a new and important tool in the Division for Extracurricular University Activities, in their efforts to inform about the most progressive facts and cultural ideas to the entire university population, and even more, to all of the people. Access to channel 4 of the Cuban Television to broadcast half an hour every day to the whole country (on a programming that was under the complete responsibility of the University of Havana) was a proof of trust and opening, something barely referred to.
Note (3): El Caiman Barbudo started as a cultural supplement to the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. After numerous open controversies, sort of respectful and really tense, it had an identity on its own. It turned into a great cultural magazine of a generation that found the paradigms of the new times in the new trova, like in Wichy Nogueras or Victor Casaus’ poetry, the narrative of Jesús Díaz or Eduardo Heras, the programming of the Cinemateca de Cuba and the valuable posters of the ICAIC or the Teatro Estudio nights (just to mention a few important names).
Accepting what was different started to shape along with the consolidation of the social revolutionary project. And it was not only a structural and political fact, but also a generator of new and powerful tendencies in the area of artistic creation in general, and music in particular.
Nothing sets a better example of such transit as the unstoppable burst of the new trova in the musical scenario of those years. It was an obvious parallelism. As a matter of fact, one of the icons of that generation of trovadores, Silvio Rodríguez, at one of his first TV interviews, declared that his main influences were the old Cuban trova and the Beatles. This statement was commented upon by many people in numerous occasions.
The characteristics of this kind of music were discussed with relevant personalities of this genre on periodical publications like El Caimán Barbudo, in its section Entre Cuerdas (Between Strings), as well as in television and radio shows, such as Encuentro con la Música (Meeting with Music), of Radio Progreso and Perspectiva, from national channel 6.
Important personalities of the Cuban contemporary music, like José María Vitier, include in their work notes taken from rock. A very Cuban orchestra, The Van Van of Juan Formel, was definitely marked from its beginnings by the influence of the Beatles.
It’s worth mentioning universal classic guitarist Leo Brower, who dedicated a whole concert to them, “From Bach to the Beatles” in 1978. This concert, recorded live, remains a classic of the Cuban discography, and it has been edited in several occasions.
On the other hand, bands such as Síntesis merge Afro-Cuban folklore with the unmistakably sound language of rock.
Lennon finds the park
By December 1990, a group of musicians and critics joined efforts to remember John Lennon on the 12th anniversary of his passing through a concert in the park mentioned above.
The good reception of this concert brought about the realization of other similar events in the same public place for the next decade. In 2000, the Cuban government approved to place a statue of Lennon in the same park the people had already baptized with his name.
The sculpture was in charge of one of the promoters, at the time young sculptor José Villa Soberón.
The fact that trovador Silvio Rodríguez and Commander in Chief Fidel Castro were present at the unveiling of the statue and the opening of this space in December 8th added even more significance to it.
Interviewed by the press attending the event, Fidel said he was sorry about not being able to pay the appropriate attention to the Beatles’ music in their time, and claimed that he would’ve liked to personally meet someone with John Lennon’s progressive ideas.
Today it is, without a doubt, one of the most visited statues in the Cuban capital. The presence of Sir George Martin in 2002 -the legendary producer of the Beatles- adds a historic detail of great emotional importance to the statue: the powerful look exchange Martin had with the bronze musician, who, after all, will always be his brother. I was fortunate to witness this meeting. For sure, the park continues as the “must” venue for memorable concerts depicting the legacy of the Beatles.
The Yellow Submarine
One thing led to another, and in 2011, the very existence of the park with John Lennon statue brought about an event of special importance for rock lovers in our country: the cultural center Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine) was opened.
Located less than 50 meters away from John Lennon statue, this popular night club (similar to a Hard-Rock Café) has become the home to more than fifteen Cuban rock bands that play cover songs of the genre’s classics. So, no wonder many nights the Yellow Submarine closes due to full capacity.
Nevertheless, the key to the success of this popular cultural center is that regular clients feel it like the place to recall their nostalgia for good classic rock. Everything in it contributes with a singular state of collective well-being. Be it because of the distinctive gastronomic service, the display of a huge diverse amount of videos from that time, and the quality of the guest musicians every night, or because of the animated decoration of the walls with the characters of the film Yellow Submarine.
The atmosphere of this place captivates those visiting for the first time so that they always want to come back. Many hope to turn this popular place into a sort of Ronnie Scott’s in Havana. Numerous renowned personalities have been and will continue to visit the Yellow Submarine. People in the Submarine remember very well the visit of Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osborne in January 2016, and the performance of concert pianist Frank Fernandez sharing the stage with, by then, the very novel band Sweet Lizzy Project.
It’s true, the Beatles were never in Cuba, and we could not buy their records as it happened anywhere else in the world. But nobody can question the profound mark this British band has left on Cubans. It’s very clear for those who enjoyed them in the 60s, as it is for the youngest among the young. That’s why we feel a familiar bond to them, a tight connection to our heritage roots, especially John Lennon.
In the end, people claim that Lennon has received a permanent residence visa to this country, where we all want to achieve the world peace and justice he dreamt about.
We are certain that he feels quite comfortably sitting at this park of Havana city. Not only because there is always the company of those who visit, but because he knows he is in the heart of Cubans, and because we have made him our own.