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Kool & the Gang visit Cuba and get the funk out

Cuba found its funk as American R&B pioneers Kool & the Gang took their eclectic mix of sounds yesterday 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 US 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 US music.

"We are all about the music. We travel the world and our message is love, understanding and unity," said Bell, a singer and bass player, before taking to the stage for a performance authorised by the US government.

"We don't come as politicians, we come as musicians."

With thousands of spectators stretching down Havana's Malcon coastal boulevard, the band played at the open-air Anti-imperialist Plaza, which sits in front of the US 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.

Offering a hybrid of funk, disco, R&B, dance and soul, Kool & the Gang achieved chart success in the 1970s and '80s.

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The most recent show in Cuba by a US group was the heavy-metal band Audioslave's thundering concert before thousands at the same amphitheatre in 2005. Cuban officials often cite pop-rocker Billy Joel's indoor performance as a rock 'n' roll landmark in Havana, and that was in 1979.

Yesterday's show was more evidence that while the Barack 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 US Treasury Department permission to play US concerts and recently accepted a Latin Grammy in person, while singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performed in Washington this month.

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