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"Other Groups Get To Meet Blair, We Play For Castro" - The Independent, 19th February 2001

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Title: "Other Groups Get To Meet Blair, We Play For Castro"
Publication: The Independent
Date: Monday 19th February 2001
Writer: Daniel Schweimler


The loudest welcoming roar at any event in Cuba is usually reserved for Fidel Castro. But at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana on Saturday night, that honour went to the band from Wales, Manic Street Preachers.

President Castro didn't seem to mind. He met the band before the concert,talking to them about their latest album. He then stayed for the whole hour-long performance.

"It was momentous," said the bass player, Nicky Wire. "Other groups get to meet Tony Blair, we meet Fidel Castro."

Their new album includes a Cuban flag on the cover and makes several references to the country, including a song called "Baby Elian", about the six-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, who was shipwrecked in 1999 trying to leave the communist island and then became the subject of a fierce custody battle between family in Cuba and the United States.

The Cuban authorities, always looking for allies in their long-running conflict with the enemy to the north, were delighted. The band endeared themselves to the Cubans even more by placing a huge Cuban flag at the back of the stage and a smaller one at the front, next to the Welsh dragon.

While the authorities applauded the lyrics, it's a little more difficult to decide how they found the music. A small group of rockers, known here as "rockeros" were obviously delighted. For a long time they found themselves persecuted by the authorities for their long hair and passion for what was seen as pro-American music.

Things have changed now. President Castro recently unveiled a statue in Havana of John Lennon and rock groups are allowed to play, some even being encouraged by the authorities. A few minor Spanish and German rock bands have visited Cuba but the last Western performers of any note were Billy Joel and Peter Frampton, when many of the Cuban rockers were still listening to nursery rhymes.

But just as the new opening up happened, the American musician and producer Ry Cooder rediscovered and repackaged a group of Cuban musicians who became collectively known as the Buena Vista Social Club. The image the world has of Cuban music now is that portrayed by the velvety-tongued croonings of Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. All straw hats and rum cocktails. Every group performing to tourists in the bars and restaurants of Old Havana replays songs recognisable from those recordings which sell so well abroad.

Even fifty-something British government ministers are getting in on the act. The Manics' gig in Havana was arranged with the help of Peter Hain, the 51-year-old MP Energy minister. He said: "I'm a great fan of the band and their music. They're radical and outspoken and I admire that."

Rock music, once marginalised for political reasons, is now marginalised for musical reasons.

Most of the young Cubans at the Manics concert had never heard of them, fewer still had heard their music. Foreign music is not easily available and most young Cubans could not afford it if it was.

Curiosity brought them to the Karl Marx Theatre. And they soon warmed to the music. While some of the older party officials tried to protect their ears, the youngsters were soon standing and wildly shaking their heads. Does Cuba want its young behaving like this? And do Cubans want the aggressive rock style and politic lyrics of bands such as the Manic Street Preachers?

The concert was an experiment that will be tested and analysed before other foreign rock bands are invited to perform on the island. But Fidel has expressed his approval and that, in Cuba, is always a good start.