HAVANA – No record store here has ever sold their music, and before Sunday, no one in the country had ever seen the band live. Yet for decades Cubans have loved Kool and the Gang, seemingly unconditionally.
Cuba filmmaker Gloria Rolando said the band's funky sound provided the soundtrack for her generation's coming of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. And even though there was a brief period in the 1960s when the communist government outright banned American music and frowned on it during the subsequent decade when it was rarely heard on government airwaves, Rolando remembers K&G's music "playing everywhere."
"It was a period of time that we didn't listen openly, in public, but the people never stopped listening to good American music. There were always underground ways."
She recalls exercising at home to K&G and dancing to the music at teen parties. "The music made you happy when you were down, told you to celebrate life," Rolando said.
Sunday afternoon, Kool and the Gang played in an open-air concert to a crowd of 100,000 jamming Havana's iconic seawall drive, proving to fans like Teresa Contreras that good things come to those who wait.
Decades ago, then-16 year old Contreras started a Kool and the Gang fan club. Over the years she's done more than hold the club together. Today, her club has 148 members – one requirement is that you have to be at least 35 years old to join.
"Just imagine how much we love them. We meet on the last Saturday of every month at my house to dance to their music," said Contreras.
Many of the fans at Sunday's one-time concert were like Contreras – middle-aged with their children and even grandchildren in tow. Spectators not only packed the plaza and public roads; they danced and gyrated on nearby balconies and rooftops.
Some fans transformed the concert into a high-school reunion.
Repairman Frank Gonzalez and his buddies opted for an all-guy's outing, leaving the wives and kids at home. Waving a couple of hand-made signs that read "Kool – Finally Ur Here," the friends spent two hours singing along with the music. One fellow even drove 18 hours to be there.
Band leader Robert "Kool" Bell dedicated the concert to the "fraternity and unity" of the people of Cuba and the United States, emphasizing that the band did not come as politicians but as musicians. The inspiration for this visit, he said, was his father, who visited Cuba in the 1950s as a boxer and admired the island's music.
The admiration flows the other way too, said American musician Pablo Menendez, who made Cuba his home after attending one of the island's prestigious music academies.
"Ordinary Cubans know that the U.S. government restricts Americans from traveling here, so people from the U.S. are given more of a welcome 'cause they're seen as people who have to jump through hoops to get here," Menendez said.