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Cool Welcome For Our Manics In Havana - Scotland On Sunday, 18th February 2001

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Title: Cool Welcome For Our Manics In Havana
Publication: Scotland On Sunday
Date: Sunday 18th February 2001

The biggest rock band ever to come to Cuba is in town and Havana should be swinging. The Manic Street Preachers have been featured on Cuban television and the Welsh band were due to fill the 5000-seat Karl Marx Theatre. But in the land of salsa and sun and velvety lounge music, hardly anyone has heard of the band known as 'Los Manics' - and still fewer saw them.

The youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, carried one paragraph which got the date of last night's concert wrong. And the tickets were by invitation only. Those invitations went to the 70 or so journalists who flew in from Britain, as well as the foreign press based in Havana, government officials and any Cuban affiliated to an official music association.

Nonetheless there is an appetite in Cuba for anything that is new and different. And there is a rock community, known here as 'los rockeros', who for many years were frowned upon by the communist authorities.

From the late 1980s musicians and their fans would meet at the Patio de Maria, a shabby hall near the Revolution Square in the centre of Havana. The place became famous throughout Cuba and is still visited by musicians from the Cuban provinces and abroad.

Aramis Rodriguez, the drummer and manager of one of Cuba's leading rock bands, Zeus, said the Patio may be small, but its name is enormous. "It kept rock music in Cuba alive," he said. His bass player, Jojo, said he'd heard of the Manic Street Preachers but had never had access to their music. "I hope now many more bands from Europe will come here," he said.

The Manics are seen by some in Cuba as rock pioneers. But they seemed unaware their visit was making rock history on the island. Their only meetings with Cuban musicians have been by chance, inviting a trumpeter to practise with them and talking to street musicians. At a news conference at the International Press Centre in the centre of Havana, the band expressed their disapproval of what they called US domination.

"We're not here for commercial reasons," said their bass player, Nicky Wire. They said they wanted to express their solidarity with Cuba and their latest release makes several references to the communist island. The cover carries a Cuban flag . The most obvious reference to Cuba is a track called 'Elian Baby', about the six-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, who was shipwrecked, detained in the US and became the subject of a bitter custody battle .

The sentiment will delight the Cuban authorities, always keen to find allies in their long-running dispute with the US, just as the country is granting rock music a cautious welcome.

Recently it received the only seal of approval that really counts in Cuba as President Fidel Castro unveiled a statue of John Lennon in Havana, praising his political activism rather than his musical talent.

The Manics said they would be paying the statue a visit and were hoping that President Castro would attend their concert.

Until now the only foreign artists Cuban rock fans have seen are a few minor Spanish groups, and the Americans Billy Joel and Peter Frampton.

But the Cuban authorities will be keeping a close eye on how the Manics' concert is received, unsure themselves about what to make of musicians singing overtly political lyrics and who are not afraid to speak their minds. Cuban music is mostly about sex: they are not sure they want to tackle the drugs and rock'n'roll just yet.