HAVANA (AP) — Thousands of jubilant Cubans and tourists swarmed the site of the Rolling Stones' free concert in Havana on Friday, calling it an historic moment for a country that once forced rock fans to listen to their favorite music behind closed doors.
Small groups of people slept overnight outside the Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, where a massive stage has been set up for the biggest act to play in the Cuba since its 1959 revolution. Thousands more streamed toward the outdoor sports complex throughout the day. At least half a million people were expected.
Night watchman Joaquin Ortiz, 62, said he'd been a huge rock fan since he was a teenager in the 1960s, when Cuba's communist government frowned on U.S. and British bands and he had to hide his Beatles and Stones albums in covers borrowed from albums of appropriately revolutionary Cuban groups.
"After today I can die," he said. "This is like my last wish, seeing the Rolling Stones."
The crowds of those waiting outside the gated of the Ciudad Deportiva to be in the first rows in front of the stage were made up of at least half foreigners, for whom seeing Cuba was as novel as seeing the Stones is for Cubans.
Ken Smith, a 59-year-old retired sailor, and Paul Herold, a 65-year-old retired plumber, sailed to Havana from Key West, Fla. on Herold's yacht.
"This has been one of my life-long dreams, to come to Cuba on my sailboat," Herold said.
The band arrived Thursday evening in the Cuban capital, two days after President Barack Obama finished the first trip to Cuba by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years. Obama who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba last year, called for the two countries to move toward full normalization in order to end the legacy of the Cold War and prompt Cuba to engage in more reforms of its single-party system and centrally controlled economy.
"Obviously something has happened in the last few years," lead singer Mick Jagger told reporters at Jose Marti International Airport. "So, time changes everything... we are very pleased to be here and I'm sure it's going to be a great show."
Cuban musicologist Joaquin Borges characterized the event as "very important," saying it would be the biggest rock concert of its kind ever on the island. He predicted that it would encourage "other groups of that stature to come and perform."
"It's a dream that has arrived for the Cuban people," radio host and rock music specialist Juanito Camacho. "A lot of young Cubans will like the music but it will also satisfy the longings of older generations."
The band's private plane carried the four British rockers, family members and about 60 technical workers to manage the huge amount of gear brought to the island for the concert, including seven huge screens and 1,300 kilograms (2,866 pounds) of sound equipment.
"We have performed in many special places during our long career, but this show in Havana will be a milestone for us, and, we hope, for all our friends in Cuba, too," the band said in a statement released before the arrival.
The concert will be held outdoors at the Ciudad Deportiva, where nearby streets were blocked to traffic beginning on Thursday.
While they waited hours for the show to begin, fans listened to a loop of songs by popular artists including Amy Winehouse while a lone vendor tried to sell popcorn to members of the crowd. Security was heavy, provided by private guards in yellow jackets and hundreds of Cuban police and black-clad Interior Ministry officers in black jumpsuits.
In the heat of Cuba's revolution from the 1960s to the 1980s, foreign bands such as The Rolling Stones were considered subversive and blocked from the radio. Rock music such as the Stones' wasn't officially prohibited in public, but it was disapproved of. Cubans listened to their music in secret, passing records from hand to hand.
The band's Cuba stop ends its "Ole" Latin America tour, which also included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico.