Unofficial Business: Rolling Stones’ Georgian shares in historic Cuba concert

This is fun. The Rolling Stones put on a massive outdoor concert Friday in Cuba for free (it’s a communist nation after all where locals have little money to spend). And a Georgia capitalist was on stage to play keyboard and take part in the cosmic collision.

Chuck Leavell, who has toured with the Stones for 34 years, said it was the first time he has played with the legendary British band played in a country still under communism.

Leavell is a guy who embraces business off stage, usually with an environmental bent. He’s a middle Georgia tree farmer who also charges people to come in for quail hunts at his Twiggs County plantation and calls it ecotourism. He has his own record label. And, with former ad man Joel Babbit, he co-founded Atlanta-based Mother Nature Network, which began as a news and information website and has evolved into content marketing, often partnering with pillars of capitalism like Coca-Cola, AT&T and Delta Air Lines.

I called the 63-year-old Leavell at his Havana hotel before the concert. The hotel’s internet connection was spotty, he told me, and he had to repeatedly sign in. And three times as we spoke on the hotel phone we heard a woman cut in on our line.

“I don’t know what that’s about,” Leavell told me after one interruption. “It’s Cuba, man.”

Yeah, Cuba, where Big Music and communism met minus the free market. We’ll see if that holds.

The concert, the last stop in the Stones’ Latin American tour, was described as the biggest in Cuba’s history, with several hundred thousand people estimated to be in the crowd at an outdoor venue. In a followup conversation afterward, Leavell said the mammoth crowd “speaks volumes to the hunger they have for this kind of cultural exchange.”

Just last year, President Obama re-established diplomatic ties with the island nation 90 miles from the United States. Now, U.S. businesses are poised to jump in.

For decades, Cuban officials frowned upon overseas rockers.

But the music, and the business that will follow, is hard to keep down.

“This is absolutely inevitable just like when Eastern Europe opened up,” Leavell told me. “The train is rolling, and it is not going to stop.”

He didn’t have much time to see the country. The band and its 60-person crew rolled in Thursday evening, dealt with a long wait to get through immigration checkpoints, then headed for dinner and later a local club to listen to Afro-Cuban music.

Leavell found the music superb and, as many do, noted the 1950s vintage cars in the economically stunted nation. Many of the taxis were really just locals who happened to have cars, he said. (Sounds like Uber to me.) He rode home from the club in an old car with no a.c. and the pervasive odor of leaking gasoline.

Leavell has been wondering how business might grow in Cuba, how both the Internet and the business of music might eventually spread. He was astounded by the limits on internet access for average Cubans.

“Can you imagine a world without the Internet? We are so used to having it every minute of every day.”

Of course, capitalism often isn’t a gentle system, even for those who grew up in it. He mentioned how, back home, streaming and downloaded music has cut into musicians’ revenue.

Leavell said the Stones didn’t perform in Eastern Europe until shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and communism was out. He recalled seeing posters in Prague that announced: “The tanks roll out; The Stones roll in.”

Leavell talked to locals at the time.

“The feeling was absolutely phenomenal, getting out of an oppressive government,” he said. But also, “people were uncertain at that time about what was going to happen, how life was going to carry on.”

It must have seemed strange for Leavell to end up on a stage in Cuba. He describes himself as a child of the 60s. He remembers air raid drills at school, sparked, I assume, by fears like those during the Cold War’s Cuban missile crisis.

“Cuba,” he said, “is a country we have watched all of our lives.”

Leavell came of age at a time when Cuba, backed by the Soviet Union, was at a nexus of Americans’ concerns about their safety in the world. Now, it’s another place to play music.

And, soon, to do business.

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