A Decade Before The Rolling Stones, Audioslave Rocked Cuba

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I am utterly confused by this. No offense Rolling Stones, but on May 6, 2005, American Rock band, Audioslave performed a free concert in front of 70,000 people at the Anti Imperialista Plaza in Havana. Yet, media outlets everywhere (I’m looking at you CNN, you’re better than that) are praising The Rolling Stones and labeling them as the first international band to rock Cuba. We’re not talking about some little house band that happened to play there almost 11 years ago. Audioslave was a powerhouse supergroup; with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell joining Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine.

In 2005, the bureaucratic channels made it nearly impossible to pull off a concert where an international band comes to Cuba. After months of persistence, Audioslave finally received the go-ahead and had to rearrange their tour schedule mid-tour in order to make the show in Havana happen. It was their request to make it a free show. The concert was organized with the joint authorization of the United States Department of the Treasury and the Cuban Institute of Music. This was during the embargo nonetheless! It was with special approval by President Bush and Fidel Castro that this show was granted. Castro permitted Audioslave to announce the concert only one day before, given it would be considered an exemption.

“As one human being from one country coming to greet human beings in another country, it couldn’t be warmer.”
– Chris Cornell, Audioslave Live in Cuba Documentary

As Audioslave arrived in Cuba on May 4th, 2005, they were immediately greeted with open arms by Cuban officials and the Cuban people. A documentary entitled Audioslave – Live in Cuba was released shortly after the experience as the band brought a film crew with them to capture their historic time there. The spirited Cuban culture is described as beautiful numerous times by the band members in the first five minutes of the film. The first question asked at Audioslave’s press conference in Cuba was whether or not there was any political intent behind this concert effort. Commerford responds by simply stating, “It’s all about the music.”

“As the first American Rock n’ Roll band to play a concert in Cuba we have several responsibilities. One is – we will play the longest concert we have ever played as Audioslave and two is – we will endeavor to play the best concert we ever have as Audioslave.” – Tom Morello, Audioslave Live in Cuba Documentary

How about this for a drinking game? Every time you hear the phrase “thank you” in any language during the 37 minute documentary, bottoms up. On second thought, … maybe don’t play that.

Audioslave showed tremendous appreciation for their experience in Cuba, often stating how mesmerized they were by the love of the arts in the Cuban culture. From watching in awe as bass and piano player jam at the Music Institute, to Morello heading down to Malecon for an improve jam with local civilians, their gratitude was ever-present. As part of their special set, the band debuted live – never heard before, “Heaven’s Dead” from their upcoming album – Out of Exile. The crowd sang, danced, cheered, laughed, cried and visibly had a great time.

The documentary as a whole is less about Audioslave being “first” and more about highlighting the concentration on the arts, spirit and energy of the Cuban people, demonstrating how full of life they are because of music. As a small thank you, the band would send music equipment such as guitar strings and drum heads to Cuban music centers in need.

“This was a trip for us to build a bridge and truly have a cultural exchange. By showing that such a simple thing as musical expression, we can communicate so immediately on almost a subconscious level. I hope people don’t ignore that.” – Chris Cornell, Audioslave Live in Cuba Documentary

Don’t get me wrong, I have enormous respect for the Stones. Their music is undeniable and will forever be legendary. But what Audioslave did almost 11 years ago should not be overlooked.

Music is not a competition. It’s a unifying art form. Perhaps Brad Wilk said it best at Audioslave’s press conference in Cuba, “To have that musical exchange, music is the universal language. It is the best way I believe to communicate with people.” But let’s give credit where credit is due.

I now better understand Chris Cornell’s tweet where he states perhaps their experience was really for those who were there and maybe for those who watched from afar. Audioslave’s performance in Cuba had nothing to do with getting accolades in the press, or about promotion. It was about celebrating the power of music and unifying under a common art. If nothing more, at least we now get to relive that.

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