Rolling Stones Cuba Mastrafoto/CON | Getty Images

Gimme Shelter From Dictatorship

Following US President Barack Obama’s trailblazing visit to Cuba, a free concert by the Rolling Stones in Havana might seem like a relatively minor event. And yet, symbolically, the concert was not minor at all: Rock musicians may not change the world, but their music has.

NEW YORK – Following US President Barack Obama’s trailblazing visit to Cuba, a free concert by the Rolling Stones in Havana might seem like a relatively minor event. Obama revived relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of deep hostility. The septuagenarian Stones just played some very loud music.

And yet, symbolically, the concert was not minor at all. To grasp the importance of the Stones’ performance in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring Cubans, one has to understand what rock and roll meant to people living under Communist dictatorships.

In the 1970s, for example, Czechoslovakia, like other Communist states, was a dreary, oppressive, joyless place, where mediocre party hacks set the tone, and creativity was stifled under a blanket of enforced conformism. Rock and roll was considered a noxious form of capitalist decadence. A local rock band named Plastic People of the Universe, performing in English, was arrested in the late 1970s for “organized disturbance of the peace.” Recordings by the Rolling Stones and other Western groups were banned.

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