Monday through Sunday Cuban rock cover bands play their versions of The Beatles songs as part of a mix that also includes hits from other famous 60s and 70s rock bands, in a picturesque site called "Centro Cultural Submarino Amarillo", which translates as Yellow Submarine Cultural Centre and which is appropriately “submerged” in a building’s basement. My suggestion is to make your way to the corner of 17th and 6th streets in the Vedado neighbourhood, with your mind set on plunging yourself into the marvellous sea of The Beatles songs.
But let me suggest that before stepping into "Club Submarino Amarillo", you go for a leisurely walk through the famous John Lennon Park where you’ll find Mr John Lennon himself, sitting on an iron bench, less than a hundred steps from the club. The life-size sculpture has Lennon’s pensive look, in an inviting gesture that almost begs for your company on the unoccupied side of his bench. This place has a symbolic meaning for many "habaneros" (people born and/or currently living in Havana), and they regard it a sacred relic which they often bestow with flowers or which they celebrate with a song or a selfie.
Hatchways, pop music, tube-shaped figures and the periscope’s eye watching your steps as you walk in. You’re now inside the Sub and the first thing that surprises you is the bar’s eye-catching decoration. It’s beautiful. There’s an ample menu of national and international cocktails, but what really steals the show, are The Beatles’s old album covers showcased here. I can assure you that it can be a wonderful experience to sip on a piña colada or a martini, while feasting your eyes on those spectacular covers and having the feeling that the Sub submerges with you onboard.
The club is open throughout the week from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. except for Sundays when closing time is 10 p.m. The entry price on concert days is 2 CUC and the club is very easy to reach by taxi or through a pilgrimage tour to see John Lennon’s statue. From Tuesdays to Saturdays, the "Submarino Amarillo" also opens from 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and during these hours, the club opens as a video-bar where you can watch videos of The Beatles and other retro bands of the time. I’m telling you this, because it might just be the refreshing stop you need to while away the hours on a hot Cuban afternoon and enjoy a lively chat in a great, subdued atmosphere.
But on a Saturday night at 9 p.m. the show’s almost underway. The performers could be veterans like "Los Tackson", "Dimensión Vertical", "Red X", or younger bands like "Miel con Limón" or "Gretel Barreiro"; all of them putting on a great show full of energy and evocative ability. Tonight, we’re lucky to enjoy the performance of "Los Kent", a legendary rock ’n’ roll band with fifty years of rock music performance on their backs.
Against all odds
Despite having changed their band members several times throughout their history and having stopped performing during certain periods of time, "Los Kents" maintain their rebellious and eternally young spirit, that which propelled them to found the band in 1965, inspired by The Beatles’ music. The group is made up of a lead singer, a bass, two guitars, a keyboard and drums.
Tonight, they start their performance with a rendition of popular Beatles songs, followed by covers from other hit-making bands like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Deep Purple and The Rolling Stones. From “Come Together” to “Satisfaction”, all their songs sound intensely epic and vital, as if with their performance, they were summarising the band’s own life, full of dreams and misfortunes.
During the early 1960s, Cuba was in the midst of the Cold War, which meant information about life in the capitalist world was very scarce. Cuban officials regarded The Beatles and all similar rock bands singing in English, as a group of alcoholic, drug-taking artists who had sold their soul to capitalism, and whose erratic behaviour could wrongly influence the youth of the island.
Thus, whoever grew their hair long, wore metal bracelets and tight-fitting flare trousers, or had a hippie appearance about them and sung in English; was pursued and censured. "Los Kent" weren’t able to escape this stereotype hunt, and thus, for years, had to settle for playing in private parties.
Nevertheless, rock’s official banning did not prevent Cuban people from doing whatever it took to listen to The Beatles music. My father tells me of how he and his friend Gory; who was later to become an outstanding painter, always carried a Rubber Soul tape that they listened to a lot, in their backpacks. This they did, because they always wanted to have it at hand, and also, because they feared that someone would discover it at home.
The Submarine is afloat
But it has rained a lot since then. When in the year 2000 Fidel Castro and former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto unveiled the statue of John Lennon while dedicating a whole park to it, Cuba began to live a somewhat official Beatlemania. In the ceremony, Castro said that Lennon had been a revolutionary whom he regretted not having met personally.
Ever since, bars like "Submarino Amarillo" have opened in other tourist destinations like Varadero, Holguín and Bayamo. Nowadays in Cuba you can listen to a powerful and evocative song like “Imagine”, in official TV programmes like the famous "Mesa Redonda" (Round Table). Public tributes are paid to The Beatles in the best theatres throughout the country, and many first-class musicians like Leo Brouwer and Juan Formell have pointed out the great influence of the British band in their own music.
Now, getting back to "Club Submarino Amarillo", the performance by "Los Kents" will last an hour-and-a-half. The Sub cuts through the depths, its oxygen packed with positive energy. Happiness overwhelms everyone. Some dance as if they were possessed, while others prefer to remain seated in a quiet reverie while enjoying the music. Like in any cult, they close their eyes and sing along to the songs’ famous chorus.
"Los Kents"’ last song is none other than “Yellow Submarine”. Once again we listen to those easy and simple lyrics, which remind us that we’re alive and that it’s worthwhile to strive for our dreams.
And our friends are all aboard,
Many more of them live next door,
And the band begins to play...
We all live in a yellow submarine,
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine.
We all live in a yellow submarine,
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine.
“It’s just rock ’n’ roll”, say "Los Kents"; and the ovation explodes. But after passing through this unexpected club, and thus reviving a golden bygone era with such a fabulous selection of songs that take you back in time, you’ll feel that your trip to Cuba will continue onboard a magical and mysterious submarine.
For Beatles enthusiasts travelling to Cuba, I recommend:
To keep track of "Club Submarino Amarillo’s" weekly programme: http://www.lapapeleta.cu/lugares/detalles/la-habana-submarino-amarillo/
To learn more about The Beatles phenomenon in Cuba: Books by Ernesto Juan Castellanos and Humberto Manduley from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Ernesto-Juan-Castellanos/e/B001JX38KQ, y http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Humerto+manduley+