HAVANA – The hair and accents were wrong, but the audience cared about just one thing: The house band was singing the Beatles in a new bar called the Yellow Submarine in Cuba, where such an act might have led to arrests in the mid-1960s.
Better yet, perhaps because of that history, the band played like rebels. Fast and raw, they zipped up and down the bass lines of “Dear Prudence” as if the song were new. They raced through “Rocky Raccoon,” and when they reached the opening words of “Let It Be” – “When I find myself in times of trouble” – the entire crowd began singing along, swaying, staring at the band or belting out the chorus with their eyes closed in rapture.
“If there’s no Beatles, there’s no rock ‘n’ roll,” said Guille Vilar, a co-creator of the bar. “This is music created with authenticity.”
Maybe so, but Cuba’s revolutionaries were not sure what to make of it when it first came out. Though today the bonds between counterculture rock and leftist politics are well-established, back then, Cuban authorities – at least some of them – saw anything in English as American and practically treasonous. The Beatles, along with long hair, bell-bottom jeans and homosexuality, were all seen as cause for alarm or arrest at a time when green fatigues were a statement of great importance.
Cuba in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, said Vilar, a trained musicologist, “was a very serious place.”
Indeed, many Cubans still recall having to sneak a listen to whatever Beatles album they could find in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and the U.S. trade embargo. Festivals like Woodstock and even smaller rock concerts hardly ever occurred – all of which helps explain the appeal of the Yellow Submarine.
Scarcity, as diamond dealers well know, is the genesis of value, and in Cuba, rock music is a rare cultural gem in its own right. But the Yellow Submarine, with its pealing guitars, porthole windows, blue and yellow interior and Beatles’ lyrics on the walls? The full experience amounts to a short, direct road out of the norm.
Cuba, after all, is still a country of limited media. Just a few channels can be found on television. The Internet runs on dial-up. And while music is seemingly everywhere, including clubs and bars, most of it falls within a narrow spectrum between trova ballads and rump-shaking reggaeton.
“This place – it’s different,” said Alexander Pena, a student from outside Havana, sitting by the bar with three of his friends.
Nonetheless, it is still quite Cuban. The Culture Ministry owns and operates the club, which opened in March. That means a cheap cover charge ($2.50), Beatles imagery without official licensing and waiters in the usual black vests, with the usual requirement of at least three reminders before any drinks are actually delivered.
Vilar, who was an adviser on the project, said the government was trying to do the right thing – to reopen closed spaces and broaden Havana’s nightlife. The crowd seemed mostly pleased. And yet this was clearly no typical bunch of rum drinkers.
On a recent Saturday, the line of dozens snaking to the corner looked like it was heading to a college graduation. Only two groups seemed to be represented: baby boomers (wearing nice dresses and slacks), and 20-something hipsters (in jeans and tight T-shirts). In a few cases, they had arrived together – mothers and daughters included – and each generation had its own reason for coming.
Older fans said the Yellow Submarine let them enjoy a moment that they should have experienced decades ago.
“You don’t understand,” Marisa Valdes, 50, said as she danced with her husband, after taking pictures with wood cutouts of John, Paul, George and Ringo. “This music, it used to be banned!”
For the young, however, the Yellow Submarine offered the opposite – something new. For a few, the bar’s existence even suggested the island’s old government was learning some new tricks.
“Maybe it shows that things in Cuba are changing,” Pena said.
But seriously, forget the seriousness for a moment. Inside, with the music playing loud, such thoughts were rare. Fun is one of the few luxuries Cubans have held on to over the years, and whether it is salsa or rock, dancing is almost always included. So when the band kicked up again, belting out “How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there,” it took no urging to get people out of their seats.
Valdes in particular seemed pleased when a young couple jumped up and began to do the twist. He was tall, thin, with a beard and rubbery legs; she had tight, bouncy curls and a white dress that looked remarkably like the one worn by Valdes. The older woman just nodded as the young one shimmied. In music and style, in Havana now and of the past, the two were one.