Buena Vista Antisocial Club - The Independent, 23rd February 2001

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Title: Buena Vista Antisocial Club
Publication: The Independent
Date: Friday 23rd February 2001
Writer: Stephen Dowling

Last week the Manic Street Preachers became the first major Western band to play Cuba. Stephen Dowling and Fidel Castro went to see them.

It's almost as if Fidel Castro's revolution never happened. What must once have been the ballroom of the Hotel Nacional, the grand former haunt of Havana's gangsters, mafia overlords and filthy rich, is swimming with people - and thick with cigar smoke, rum and sultry music. You could almost believe you were back in the days when Havana was the playground for gamblers, hedonists and crime lords, the richest, glitziest, sleaziest city in the Caribbean.

If, as some music journalists believe, a concert is only as good as its aftershow, the Manic Street Preachers' post-gig party at the Nacional truly takes the cake. The singer, James Dean Bradfield, bassist, Nicky Wire, and drummer, Sean Moore, still don't seem to have returned to earth after a gig that received a standing ovation from the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

Cuba's anti-capitalist leader turning up to a rock gig by a Welsh band signed to one of the biggest record labels in the world? What would Che Guevara say?

Rock'n'roll has come to Havana at a turning-point, and James Dean Bradfield can't help but get fired up. "If the embargo was lifted, you'd see a 10-year plan for all this changing," he says during the night. "I still think America has a lot to answer for. The Bay of Pigs was a long time ago. Leave it, people. Let it go." The Manics' indignant streak has returned.

Their visit is not the first by a Western band. Some Spanish and German bands have played low-key dates here before, but it's the first by such a high-profile group in a country still ostracised by much of the capitalist world.

Cuba's musical richness followed its history through Spanish colonialism, through Batista's dictatorship, to Communist revolution and 40 years of embargoes. But rock'n'roll has passed it by - at least officially. Just down the road from the Karl Marx Theatre, the beachside venue where the Manics play, the logo of the Californian metallers Korn is scrawled on a rotunda in a banyan-tree-adorned park. The paladares, Havana's restaurants in private homes, inevitably play Van Morrison and Foreigner instead of traditional son or mambo music. Buena Vista Social Club, don't forget, was the American blues guitarist Ry Cooder's idea all along.

The Manic Street Preachers aren't household names in this corner of the world. But it seems their history of left-leaning politicising, anti- American diatribes and use of quasi-Communist imagery (the singer, James Dean Bradfield, once wore Soviet military fatigues on stage) sits a little better with Castro than Duran Duran. The Manics' manager, Martin Hall, and entourage spent months cutting through red tape to make the gig a reality. The British Council and the Labour MP and Energy minister Peter Hain have got involved. The Manics' entourage extends as far as a Channel 4 TV crew to film the event, and journalists from as far away as Finland and Japan. In a press conference overseen by Cuban officials the day before the gig, they are officially applauded for the lyrics to "Baby Elian", one of two songs on the new album, Know Your Enemy, that refer to Cuba.

Sean Moore says, for the benefit of the British press, that the band have had better treatment from the Cuban press than a Spanish-speaking band would in the UK.

It's not quite unabashed rock'n'roll freedom, come the night of the gig, however. The Cuban administration is taking no chances with the audience, with so many of the world's press there. The band originally wanted to sell tickets for 25c to locals - but the Cuban government seems to have bought most of the tickets and handed them out to high schools and universities.

A clutch of design students includes one teenager dressed in a Foo Fighters T-shirt. High-school girls meeting their friends look indistinguishable from any other youngsters hanging around outside before a concert in the US or the UK. Alongside the locals, there are at least four fans from Wales and two American girls who've flown all the way from New York to Mexico, defying their country's ban on visiting Cuba, which carries with it a fine of up to $500,000 and a jail term.

In front of a huge Cuban flag, the Manics' simple stage set is dwarfed. One of the crew plays a DJ set that features Outkast's clattering "Bombs Over Baghdad", just days after America has peppered the Iraqi capital with bombs.

The first roar from the crowd is not for the band, but for Fidel Castro - the Cuban leader's attendance had been rumoured, but the first sign that it's actually happening is the sudden whisking-away of photojournalists to a house further down the street, where Ministry of the Interior staff poke at cameras. The man who survived eight assassination attempts in the 1960s is taking no chances.

The Manics' gig here has a sense of familiarity, despite the exotic climes, and the spiky attitude they once boasted is back, with a set drawing heavily on the punky sound of yesteryear - "Motown Junk" - and the cathartic clatter of the new single "Found That Soul" alongside the stadium guitar riffs of "Motorcycle Emptiness" and the prole power anthem of "A Design for Life". For "Kevin Carter" they are even joined on stage by a local trumpet-player. Bradfield and Wire seem on their best behaviour - they even break their promise of tradition and play an encore, though Fidel has by now left the building for the three-hour drive home.

Later, in the gardens of the Nacional, James Dean Bradfield says that if anything doesn't make sense, it's because he's had a bit to drink. The band who've been the soundtrack to Felix Savon's lithe moves are still on stage. The summer night air is the kind that Hemingway stayed in Cuba for.

Bradfield, the "sociable" wing of the Manic Street Preachers, says his sense of wonder may die in the morning. He still can't believe he met Fidel. "He came and met us backstage. We were just summoned into a room; a guy said: 'Someone wants to meet you now; follow me.' And he just sat there and said: 'I didn't realise there were so many people in the band', in Spanish. I said: 'I hope it's not going to be too loud', and he said to me: 'Nothing can be as loud as war.' " He beams.

Fidel obviously liked what he saw. Later, the band were told to wait in the lobby for a car that would take them to his residence.

The Manics' dinner with Fidel adds fuel to allegations that the band choose to see only one side of reality under Castro's rule. "We never said it was a perfect country," Bradfield says. "It's not a perfect political agenda. But a lot of these journalists are happy to go to Goa, where some of the biggest crimes under the flag of the British Empire were committed. We've been doing lots of documentary stuff with the film crew, and your picture of a Communist totalitarian state would be that you'd be followed everywhere. We weren't shadowed at all."

Despite the bristling, though, the poignancy of the visit is still sinking in. "I can't admit that I didn't feel a bit big-headed up there tonight, playing songs like "Freedom of Speech Won't Save My Children" or "Let Robeson Sing". We might be the only band that's able to come here and have songs put into context."

Havana has also made Bradfield question the Western culture he's grown up with. Havana life may be harder - and may very well get harder - but he says, "There is an unabashed promotion of people's culture here. They don't say, 'We've been to this club'; they say, 'We've been to Revolutionary Square', or, 'We've been on an anti-imperialist march.' You don't get that in London, Hamburg or Tokyo. You get people saying, 'I know a place where they do a great steak tartare!"

The Manics, 12 years into their career, are now "closer to the end than we are the beginning. It isn't healthy for a band to be around for ever. You lose the context. Already, our ideals are a bit quaint. It may be endearing at the moment but could make us seem ludicrous before too long."

Whatever else happens this year, Bradfield laughs, indicating the Nacional, "You could say it's all downhill from here. We're going to do another world tour, hit the same old cities, find that great steak tartare." His voice takes on the tone of an American tourist. "They do amazing sea scallops in this restaurant in Frankfurt..."