American R&B pioneers Kool & the Gang helped Cuba get its funk on, bringing their eclectic mix of sounds Sunday to an open-air stage a stone's throw from the sparkling waters of the Caribbean.
Robert "Kool" Bell," his brother Khalis Bayyan, saxophonist Dennis Thomas and drummer George "Funky" Brown became one of the few U.S. musical acts to perform in Cuba in recent memory, amid Washington's travel restrictions and the ambivalence of the island's communist government about rock 'n' roll, hip hop and other kinds of American music.
"We are all about the music. We travel the world and our message is love, understanding and unity," Bell, a singer and bass player, said before taking the stage for a performance authorized by the U.S. government. "We don't come as politicians, we come as musicians."
With thousands of spectators stretching down Havana's storied Malcon coastal boulevard, the band played at the open-air Anti-imperialist Plaza, which sits in front of the U.S. Interests Section. Fans, many of them middle-aged with children in tow, danced and jumped up and down to the music while tenants in nearby apartment buildings watched from balconies.
The band heads next to Miami _ where many in the Cuban-American community still hold deep resentment toward Cuba's government.
Offering a hybrid of funk, disco, R&B, dance and soul, Kool & the Gang came into its own in the 1970s and '80s. Its "Celebration" has been a mainstay at sports stadiums across the United States for a generation, and another hit, "Jungle Boogie" enjoyed a renaissance when it was featured in Quentin Tarantino's cult smash "Pulp Fiction."
The most recent show by a U.S. group was the heavy-metal band Audioslave's thundering concert before thousands at the same amphitheater in 2005.
But most American rockers, rap artists and other musical acts have kept away. Cuban officials often cite pop-rocker Billy Joel's indoor performance as a rock 'n' roll landmark in Havana, and that was in 1979.
Still, Sunday's show was more evidence that while the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro talk tentatively about improving chilly relations, the entertainment world is already well into a thaw.
Omara Portuondo, Cuba's sultry-voiced diva of the Buena Vista Social Club, was granted U.S. Treasury Department permission to play U.S. concerts and recently accepted a Latin Grammy in person, while singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performed in Washington this month.
Salsa specialists Charanga Habanera have scheduled a year-end concert in Miami, and longtime island favorite Los Van Van have announced plans to put on 60 U.S. concerts in 2010.