Cubans Get Down on It with Kool & the Gang

News from Cuba | Monday, 21 December 2009

By Michael Voss for BBC News, Havana

The main road along Havana's seafront, the Malecon, was sealed off on Sunday as thousands of Cubans flocked to a free open air concert by the veteran American funk disco band Kool & the Gang.

They were the first US musicians to receive permission to perform on this communist-run island since President Barack Obama came to power.

"We are not politicians, we are musicians," maintained founder and band leader Robert 'Kool' Bell.

"We come to bring good music and it's great that we are here. Hopefully we won't have these political questions and problems in the future."

It was a free concert; the band did not earning anything by performing here.

"This is an honourable event for us. We know it's historical and we hope the whole world really gets to know more about Cuba by us being here," said another of the original band members, saxophone player Dennis Thomas.

A rapturous welcome awaited them as they stepped out on to the stage in the Anti-Imperialist Plaza.

It sits in front of the US Interest Section, the closet thing America has to an embassy here.

Formed in 1964, Kool & the Gang finally made the big time with their 1980 number one hit Celebration, along with songs like Ladies' Night and Get Down on It.

Dance moves

They later found a fresh lease of life after their music featured on Quentin Tarantino's 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.

Kool & the Gang's eclectic mix of funk, disco, jazz, soul and R&B was hugely popular in Cuba, especially with those growing up in the 1980s.

The crowd knew the words to most of their songs, as well as many of the disco dance moves.

Forty-eight-year-old Asi Dominguez had arrived early with her husband and daughter to ensure they got a place at the front.

"We listened to them at home, at school, at parties, at discos, everywhere", she recalled with enthusiasm.

"It's just fantastic to be able to listen to them live here. It's better late than never."

Her husband Frank recalls on their first dates dancing to Kool & the Gang's music.

"It was a great time for us. We were all 15 or 16 and that was our music."

'Decadent' pop

Fans waved signs, such as "After 30 years we still love you" and "Kool We Love U".

Ana Estevez

Fifty-year-old Ana Estevez couldn't believe she was hearing them at last.

"They bring back so many memories. Their music influenced a whole generation of Cubans: my generation."

Now everyone here hopes that more groups will follow.

A few US bands have played here before.

In the late '60s the Beatles and almost all 'decadent' Western pop music was banned on the island, but not for long.

The American rock singer Billy Joel made history here back in 1979. The most recent US group was the Los Angeles hard-rock group Audioslave, in 2005.

But all cultural exchanges dried up after the Bush administration tightened the US trade embargo and travel ban.

Tensions have eased under President Barack Obama.

He has not dropped the trade embargo, but is encouraging people-to-people contacts.

Cuban Americans are now free to visit relatives on the island and there are attempts in Congress to let all Americans travel here.

A few Cuban musicians have gone in the other direction.

Omara Portuondo, the sultry voiced diva who rose to fame with the Buena Vista Social Club, sang in the US recently and personally collected her Latin Grammy award there.

The veteran Salsa band, Van Van, have also announced plans for a 60-stop tour of the US next year.

However, there is still some resistance in Washington.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled to perform here recently, but had to cancel because their sponsors were refused permission to go with them.

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