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Manics Play To Castro - BBC News, 19th February 2001

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Title: Manics Play To Castro
Publication: BBC News
Date: Monday 19th February 2001
Writer: Daniel Schweimler

Cuban President Fidel Castro was the surprise guest of honour at a concert in Havana by The Manic Street Preachers.

He chatted with the Welsh band before Saturday night's concert, and then stayed for the full hour-long performance.

The Manics were the biggest western band to play in Cuba since 1979, and rock fans were not disappointed.

The back of the stage, at Havana's Karl Marx Theatre, was covered by a huge Cuban flag. At the front was the Welsh Red Dragon emblem, next to a smaller Cuban flag.

"It was momentous," said band member, Nicky Wire, afterwards. "Other groups get to meet Tony Blair, we meet Fidel Castro."

Some older Cuban Government officials at the concert were seen with their hands over their ears and may not have appreciated the loud rock music.

But they would certainly have applauded the lyrics, especially those of one song, from the band's latest album, called Baby Elian.

It is about the six-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, who was shipwrecked in 1999 and then became the subject of a bitter custody battle between his family in Cuba and those in the United States.

A small group of rockers, known in Cuba 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 are even encouraged by the authorities.

A few minor Spanish and German rock bands have visited Cuba, but the last Western performers of any note to play here were Billy Joel and Peter Frampton, when many of the younger Cuban rockers were still listening to nursery rhymes.

Just as the new opening up happened, the American musician and producer, Ry Cooder, rediscovered and repackaged a group of ancient 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 replay songs recognisable from those recordings which sell so well abroad.

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 were. Curiosity brought them to the Karl Marx Theatre to see the Manic Street Preachers. And they soon warmed to the unfamiliar music.

The youngsters were soon standing and wildly shaking their heads.

It was not exactly a rock and roll rebellion since Fidel was there, but it was a rare event and only the Cuban authorities can decide when something similar happens again.

One of the band's entourage said President Castro was surprisingly knowledgeable about their music, but it is unlikely he put on their latest recording when he got home.