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  • Andrew Bell

One in a Million?

Text & Images by Andrew Bell

I woke to the news that The Rolling Stones, probably my all-time favourite band, had extended their South American tour by one night. In of itself that isn’t unusual, bands add dates to tours all the time; what made this one so special though was the location and the price of a ticket.

The revised final date of the Ole Ole Ole tour would now be Havana! and the entrance fee would be nothing…

I spent the morning rushing emails to friends and contacts in Cuba; had they heard, did they know where the concert would be, how many people could the venue hold, could they find me accommodation? Knowing it would be hours or even days before they were able to answer and not knowing if it would even be officially possible to attend the concert as a tourist, I started trawling the internet for flights.

A few days later I had found out a little more about the concert. It would be held outside of central Havana at or near a baseball stadium, the capacity of the space was estimated to be around 100,000 with spaces allocated on a first come, first served basis. Without hesitation, without thinking there was even the slightest possibility of not being one of those 100,000 people, I booked the flights and secured an apartment for 6 days, three days either side of the concert date: 20th March 2016. The countdown began.

For the next few weeks I could think of nothing else, I listened and re-listened to Stones albums old and new, followed the tour info on social media and tried to second guess which songs they would play and in what order; what would they open with, what would form the encore, how long would the show last? I told everyone and anyone I met that I was going, that I would be there. My favourite band in my favourite city; a place I know and love, where I have connections who can open almost any door; nothing would stop me; I would see that show…

…and then President Obama announced he will make the first official visit by a sitting US President to Cuba in over 5 decades! Incredible news; the chance that sanctions may be lifted, or even an end to the embargo that has hung over Cuba since JFK; except, his visit was March 20th-25th and Obama wasn’t playing second fiddle to The Stones, so their concert date was cancelled...

…and then it wasn’t. because the significance of Obama’s visit wasn’t lost on the band, they agreed to move their gig on to the night of the 25th. Everything was saved, we were still going.


The days dragged past, to me it felt like the continents were drifting apart faster than the days were being ticked off my calendar, but eventually the time for departure arrived; bags were packed, cameras checked, double checked and triple checked, the car loaded and we headed to the airport.


In Havana it was hot and the air was electric; everywhere we looked there were people in Rolling Stones t-shirts and not just from Cuba, people had flocked to Havana from all over the world, because they, like us, knew that this was something special. Not just a one off, free event from one of the worlds biggest and greatest bands, but a massive cultural shift, a seismic change in a country where not very long ago Rock&Roll wasn’t just frowned upon, it was outlawed, banned and with very strict consequences if you were found listening to it. It wasn’t just a surprise that this gig was going ahead, it was an outright miracle…


The day of the concert. We headed out early to the venue, and we weren’t the only ones…

By 10am there were crowds gathered on all sides of the open space where the band would perform; high metal fences had been erected all around and there was a heavy, armed police presence everywhere. We moved through the crowd, camera shutters clicking as we sought to capture everything around us. 10 hours before the scheduled start time and there were already thousands of people singing, dancing, drinking; the mood was high, the crowd were excited and the atmosphere was buzzing.

No one knew when we’d be allowed through the fences or how it would work. Would we be allowed to take drinks in, were there concession stands inside, would non-Cuban’s even be allowed in?

None of that mattered, we were here, the clock was ticking down and everyone was happy. People from all over the world coming together with one shared dream; a love of music.

At 14:00 we watched as a section of fencing a hundred yards away was toppled over, we couldn’t see if it was deliberate or accidental but either way it started a domino effect. Fences started going down all around the site, the crowd surged forward, a tidal wave of people running across the open field towards the stage, shouting, screaming, waving flags and followed… We ran with them, shouted and screamed with them, rushed forwards and secured our place in history…

The afternoon passed in a blur of rum and cigars; we made new friends, we sang, we danced and most of all we photographed everything and everyone around us.

Late in the afternoon, I turned and saw a man pushing his way through the crowd towards where we were stood; he was enormous, a man-mountain, wearing sunglasses and a faded Iron Maiden t-shirt and he was staring straight at me…

He pushed his way through the crowd and came to stop directly in front of us… “English!” - We weren’t sure if it was a statement, a question, or a threat, so somewhat nervously, I smiled up at him and said that yes I was.


A grin as broad as any I’ve ever seen spread across his faced as he reached out and embraced me in a bear hug. “My friends”… “Thank you for bringing Rock & Roll to Cuba!” He said it as if Andy and I had personally arranged the who concert for his benefit; and he meant it. With tears in his eyes he told how whilst serving in the Cuban army he had been caught listening to a pirated copy of a Rolling Stones album; his punishment? Several years in prison… Remember when I said Rock’n’Roll was outlawed..! but now, now they were here, playing a live concert and he was there to see it. “Cuba”, he said… “is forever changed


Estimates vary wildly as to how many people actually attended that concert; I’ve heard everything from 100,000 to 1,000,000 and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is correct. I can tell you it was one of the most incredible, inspiring moments of my life, a day I will never forget.

Today marks the five year anniversary and, as I sit at home, unable to travel, staring at the tray clouds outside, it's an anniversary which I look back on with increasing wonder, think about what has and hasn’t changed since.

Almost immediately after Obama's visit direct flights started from several US cities into Cuba as Obama kept his promise and eased restrictions. Later, Fidel Castro passed away and Hollywood celebrities were spotted enjoying fine dining in trendy Havana restaurants; could that have been the turning point, the end of the embargo and the normalisation of relations?

Perhaps it could if Obama’s term hadn’t ended, his restrictions reversed and then hardened and a global pandemic spread around the world…

...But Cuba is an island that doesn’t stand still, filled with people who are the epitome of inventiveness and ingenuity; throughout the turmoil things have continued to change; new hotels, restaurants and businesses have opened, almost entirely funded by money from outside Cuba; whilst others, those owned by Cubans themselves have been forced to close. Although knowing Cuba and the Cubans, that's more likely temporarily and we know that in some way they will come back as the island starts to reopen.


Every time we visit things have moved on, this is an island that’s in perpetual flux and forever changing; it’s history has been influenced by forces from outside and within countless times over the centuries and it looks like that trend is set to continue.

Some things though stay the same every time we visit: The people; warm, hospitable, welcoming friendly and beautiful. The weather; hot and sunny with the occasional welcome tropical shower. The atmosphere; Lively, vibrant, filled with music and laughter.

The old favourites are still here; cars, cigars and rum – but now they’re mixed with something new; a sense that Cuba is on the verge of something big and we’ll be there to witness it, revel in it and capture it all.

We have two trips to Cuba planned for later this year, details of both on the holidays page of this website, if you would like to witness first hand just how amazing this country is, get in touch today and book your place. Who knows what might happen...

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