On a crowded stage in Havana in 2019, the members of the group Blondie are joined by Cuban musicians playing congas and horns and singing back up on their 1981 No. 1 hit “The Tide Is High.”
Singer Debbie Harry plays for laughs as she breathily introduces the band members (“Ah, Alejandro!”), wearing a sheer tropical-bright skirt floating over her black leggings that makes her look like she could be at a rumba rather than a rock concert.
“One of our goals was to interact with local musicians,” Blondie drummer Clem Burke tells Billboard. “We really assimilated the Cuban musicians and the sound of Cuba into the Blondie performance, the music being the universal language. It was fantastic.”
Fans will finally get to hear the magic more than two years after the storied punk band and Cuban musicians joined forces in Havana. The Live in Havana EP is set for release on July 16 (BMG) and a Cuban-tinged version of “The Tide Is High” is available now as a single on streaming services.
In addition, footage from the concerts at Havana’s Teatro Mella were also captured on film by Rob Roth, an artist and director who is a longtime Blondie collaborator. The 18-minute film, called Blondie: Vivir in Havana, which also includes scenes in New York City, had its sold-out premiere on June 14 at the Tribeca Film Festival, and can be screened via the festival’s website through June 23.
The vintage feel from shooting with a handheld camera on 16mm film proved perfect for evoking the aesthetics of the gritty, broke New York of the mid-1970s when the band first came together, and juxtaposing that with contemporary Havana, where economic challenges make the routine activities of everyday life a DIY endeavor not driven by punky independent spirit, but by raw necessity.
“When I was living in New York in the ’70s, New York was crumbling,” Harry says in the film. “I think there’s a kind of beauty in that decay and I think that was one of the similarities,” The singer, who was born in Miami, says she immediately connected with the tropical island. Although it was her first time in Havana, she “felt like I had been there before.”
The film can feel both nostalgic and surreal, its arrival at a moment when U.S. politics and a global pandemic cooled the euphoria for collaborations between American and Cuban musicians and audiences.
It captures not only a concert, but scenes from an event that brought international fans of the band to Cuba to convene with Havana concertgoers and musicians. It was one among a growing number of “concert experiences” staged by American artists for the Cuban people, for whom tickets cost the equivalent of less than a dollar, and also for Americans traveling to Cuba. A record of over 600,000 American visitors went to Cuba 2018, according to official Cuban data.
But Blondie’s concert, as it turned out, was a last hurrah for a period that brought not only those U.S. tourists, but also an unprecedented number of famous American musicians to Havana. The frequency of such concerts, organized under the guise of cultural exchange with the cooperation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture and the U.S. government, exploded after President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro re-established diplomatic ties between the two countries at the end of 2014.
“The fact that there have been concerts in Cuba like Blondie, the Rolling Stones, Diplo, Audioslave and many more have allowed thousands and thousands of people to believe that a different world is possible, to feel fortunate to have lived a magic moment and forget about everything around them,” says the artist X Alfonso, who in 2014 founded Havana’s Fábrica de Arte, an arts center and music venue that was visited by Usher, Questlove and Childish Gambino among many other American artists. (X is also the son of Sintesis’ Carlos Alfonso). “It’s a unique gift and a dream come true.”
Just as it seemed that performing in Cuba could evolve from an artistic and altruistic endeavor into a commercially viable one, the Trump Administration announced regulations reversing the Obama policies with strict new rules in 2017. By spring of 2019, American cruise ships stopped docking in Havana.
While Americans could still get to Cuba, it was more difficult. And as the burden of visa paperwork returned to pre-Obama levels, so did the chilling effect on artists and fans. Country star Tim McGraw, for example had announced what was billed as “four days of music and adventure in the city of Havana,” for Memorial Day weekend in 2019. The trip was cancelled soon after Blondie returned from their own successful experience in Cuba.
“We’re really happy and proud that we were able to get there,” Blondie drummer Burke said in a conversation with Billboard on Zoom. “The receptive nature from the Cuban government was a big impetus for us. They were happy to have us come and experience that. It was a good learning process for us, too. I mean, I probably felt safer in Cuba than I do like in Century City Mall these days.”
Until the end of his term, Trump continued to tighten regulations, prohibiting Americans from staying in a growing list of Havana hotels, and as a last stroke of his pen against Cuba, he returned Cuba to the list of “terrorist countries,” effective January 2021. Then COVID-19 arrived. All live music came to a standstill on the island and most venues remain closed.
“The main issue why we can’t get started yet is because Cuba is still having a COVID surge,” says Chaz Chambers, whose company Havana Music Tours just canceled a sold-out trip to a Cuban music festival scheduled for August.
Cuba has developed its own vaccines, but as Chambers points out, the U.S. embargo has been an obstacle to getting needed medical supplies. “They lack syringes for the mass vaccinations necessary to bring numbers down and eventually open the country,” he says.
When that does happen, Chambers will be among those waiting for news from President Biden, who had been expected to roll back Trump’s regulations early in his term, but so far has not declared a new Cuba policy. Still, Chambers notes that Havana Music Tours has still seen an anticipatory uptick in reservations for music trips to Cuba in late 2021 and 2022.
“If there was any positive news about U.S. and Cuba relations, I think we could see another travel boom to Cuba like when Obama opened things up,” he says. Meantime, the Blondie concert is a reminder of how things once were, and still could be.