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Dancing To Castro's Beat - Sunday Herald Sun, 20th May 2001

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Title: Dancing To Castro's Beat
Publication: Sunday Herald Sun
Date: Sunday 20th May 2001
Writer: Andrew Smith

In March, the Manic Street Preachers became the first major rock act to play Havana since 1979. Were they striking a blow for political freedom, or merely pawns of the great dictator? Andrew Smith joins the tour.

Salsa rhythms collide with rock and disco in the desiccated streets. Fifties-vintage Chevys clang past, flanked by buildings which appear ready to crumble to nothingness in the face of the first stiff breeze to blow in from the Caribbean. Havana turns out to be exactly what I expected, only more so.

Everything seems hand-tinted, washed by the sun. The only primary colours are worn by the prostitutes who keep watch on most street corners. You notice the unusually pungent smell of car fumes, fuel is in short supply and almost anything flammable is put into petrol tanks; the massive "camel" buses pulled by ancient Soviet trucks; the muddle of skin tones, from pale European to dark African. There are no overweight people at all. No homeless on the streets.

Later, Nicky Wire, the Manic Street Preachers' lanky bass player/lyricist, is asked why his three-man band has come here. Wire says it was as far from their last launch gig - in England - as they could go.

Wire was being flippant, of course, and a little disingenuous. The idea of commemorating the release of the new Manics album, Know Your Enemy, by becoming the first major non-communist rock act to play Havana since Billy Joel in 1979 occurred to them 10 months ago and has cost a small fortune to realise.

It has also reopened the old debate about pop stars playing with politics. The argument for is that they have access to a large audience. The more compelling case against has, in one way or another, touched everything from George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh to Rock Against Racism and Live Aid. Who gains most from such involvement in the long run - cause or artist? Is hitching a serious issue to ephemeral and fashion-sensitive pop music counter-productive and self-serving? These questions have never been more urgent than they are in our age of mandatory celebrity endorsement of all things. And on the face of it, what cause could be more natural for a rock group to endorse than the Cuban revolution?

Most of the scepticism around the Welsh rock band's decision to visit Havana has cent-red on the human-rights failings of Fidel Castro's regime. After a few days, my concern about their presence here is different. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of its sponsorship, the government had little option but to open up to outsiders, and now there are tales of a village to the south which has become a sex tourism destination for Canadian men. Meanwhile, amid the colonial splendour of the Nacional Hotel, where the Mafia held court during Batista's day, we watch two Englishmen acquire a prostitute for the duration of their stay and send her out to "find her mate Charlie".

Cuba is changing and no one is quite sure where the changes are leading. Fidel is 75 this year and can't last forever. Many Cubans still appear to have genuine respect and affection for him, blaming the US embargo for their plight: those who don't usually refuse to speak.

I ask a taxi driver who used to earn $30 a month as a mechanical engineer (the average is $40) what people think of Fidel these days. "Oh, some love him, some do not," he hedges. What about you? There is a long pause. "I can not answer you. Questions like that are... dangerous. I don't know who you are. I could lose my job."

And this is a good job, he adds. There are two economies in today's Cuba, one driven by near-worthless pesos and the other, US dollars. Like the prostitutes, he makes dollars. Do people lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing? Amnesty International says yes - there are political prisoners in Cuban jails while gay people languish in squalid correctional institutes as a direct result of their sexuality. Wire has been firmly instructed not to wear a skirt onstage, as he often does back in Britain.

One thing everyone agrees on is there is no obvious candidate to replace Castro and people hedge around the question of what happens when he's gone. Now along come the avowedly anti-American Manic Street Preachers, heavily subsidised by the multinational Sony Corporation, perhaps paving the way for others.

Things seem a little different by showtime. Thousands of young Cubans are pouring excitedly into the Karl Marx Theatre to see a band they know little about. No one has the faintest idea what the audience will make of them.

Then word comes that Fidel is here. He has had an impromptu backstage summit with the band. During the jovial exchange, Fidel mentions he has seen the lyrics to the song Baby Elian, about the Cuban boy who became the focus of a tussle between the US and Cuban Governments last year - and that he finds them "beautiful". The problem is the Manics hadn't intended to play the song ("We thought it would just be too much," Wire grins), meaning singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield has to bail them out with a solo acoustic version, at the end of which Castro rises in a flamboyant show of appreciation. I find myself wondering what all this is about.

"I suspect that this concert will be talked about for years to come," suggests Michael White, the British Council's country director. Despite myself, I have to acknowledge the pleasure ordinary Cubans seem to be taking in the mere fact that a well-known foreign band has made the effort to come here.

That said, cultural solidarity isn't the only talking point later. Bumping into Nick Naysmith, guest keyboard player, I ask him for his impressions of Fidel.

"Well," he offers, "I can tell you one thing. He dresses to the left."

"Er, sorry?"

"Yep. It was huge."

Everybody's talking about it and it's not long before word gets out that Fidel has two local nicknames - "The Beard" and "The Horse". Unable to quite believe what I'm hearing, I consult the ever-down-to-earth Bradfield. "It was halfway down his leg," he twinkles. "Now we know the source of his power, don't we."

For the first time, that old story about the CIA attempting to assassinate the father of the revolution by poisoning his underpants makes a kind of sense.

The next morning, Wire wakes to a deep sense of anticlimax. He'd played a blinding show, met one of his heroes, Fidel Castro, then two more: the athlete Alberto Juanterino, and Felix Savon, an impossibly statuesque former boxer. Now he feels drained.

Fidel has invited the Manics to be guests of honour at the opening of a new state university. Right from the start, the atmosphere is strained. As the day-long excursion wears on, the band becomes truculent. ("It was like a return to the old days of communism," Wire says later. "We were carted around, with no one giving us any information about what was happening.") Eventually we arrive at the college, which is festooned with student artwork, much of it familiar images of Che Guevara. The band are in a foul mood by this time, talking of going straight home and f---ing Castro.

We are herded into a small theatre and take up positions at the end of three narrow rows of seats. After about 20 minutes there is a bustle at the door and he is among us. In fact, he is at the end of my row.

He banters with the band, through an interpreter. Everyone is entertained: being all military bearing, mischievous grin and raised eyebrows, he is Mel Brooks with a beard. Provided you're not gay, of course, at which point he becomes Adolf Hitler with a beard.

Before yesterday's show, Wire had cautioned "It might be a bit loud tonight" and Castro had replied, "Will it be as loud as war?" - despite the fact that he hasn't been to one for 42 years. Now Wire has the chance to ask if it had been as loud as war and the older man shoots back, with mock incredulity, "It was louder" before ribbing drummer Sean Moore about his role as artillery. He animatedly compares notes on song compositions and speeches, and wisecracks about relations between the Welsh, Scots and English. Then, as if on cue, he seems to turn towards the battery of media and raises the subject of Baby Elian.

Suddenly, it isn't about the Manics now, or me, as a representative of the foreign media. We are being monstered, used to facilitate some nationalist fervour.

You don't get to be in power for 40 years without knowing how to turn on the charm, or without recognising a useful photo op when you see one. And if you're going to be monstered, you might as well be monstered by the best.

By the next day, Wire's version of events has undergone a rewrite. He had been exhausted, rather than pissed off, during the pre-Fidel part of the trip. The adrenalin rush of Saturday night had been "so gigantic" there was bound to be a reaction. He doesn't mind being used for propaganda purposes. "I thought that would happen anyway. I'm not naive enough to believe they wouldn't use us to promote something for them. And, let's face it, we're using them just as much. To think of it in terms of being used and abused ... it might have felt like that for a couple of minutes, but it just wasn't."

You're sold, then? "Well...I think it's different to anywhere else I've ever been. It has a different spirit. And, for all the things we might disapprove of, Castro stands out as someone who's really tried to do something good. The literacy rate here is higher than in the UK and the health service works. There are no homeless people. They have kind of jumped on Baby Elian, but I don't think that was pre-planned. And, to be honest, I wouldn't have wrote the song if I didn't feel strongly about it myself."

Wire's good at being a pop star and seems to be enjoying it again. He aims gleeful tirades at a range of subjects including the cult of celebrity, the supineness of the media, John Lennon's Imagine and is happy as a sandboy until we get on to the subject of Richey James Edwards - the troubled guitarist/lyricist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1995. Manic Street Preachers have now made as many albums without him as with him. It seems like an important watershed, but Wire admits that they still haven't grieved for the colleague who had been his best mate since the age of 10, though his feelings are changing with time.

"I think that's true and that's the frightening thing and that's why I try not to dwell on it too much. You do read about what delayed grief can do to people when it settles on you. I still can't think of him as being dead, though. None of us knows."

And after a while, you start to suspect that Nicky Wire sees Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution in a similar way.