On March 25th this year The Rolling Stones played a ‘historic’ concert in Havana, Cuba, to more than 400 000 people. Many reported the concert as a date that would go down in history, as Mick Jagger’s men became the first rock and roll band to play a free outdoor concert on such a scale in the city.
Such was the hype for the occasion, Barack Obama’s visit to Havana earlier the same week – the first by a serving US president in 88 years – was billed as merely a ‘warm up act’to the Stone’s show.
But through all the razzmatazz and Jagger hip shaking, it wasn’t that historic. Just ask Manic Street Preachers. They beat The Stones to the punch by a mere 15 years, becoming the first major Western rock act to perform in the city since the Cuba revolution in 1959 and the first Western music act in 22 years to perform in Havana. And not only that, the recently deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro was in the audience.
The date was Saturday 17th February 2001 in Havana’s Carlos Marx theatre. The platform from where the Manic’s gave their concert the very one that Fidel Castro gave countless speeches from against what he called ‘Yankee imperialism’ in his time as Cuban leader.
The timing couldn’t have been better, coming not long after a ban on Western music was lifted, and Castro’s scheduled attendance at the gig was seen by Cuban commentators as way for him to show the world that his country, Cuba, was changing.
It was billed as win-win for both, a convenient promotional campaign against an honest political commitment on the part of the Manic Street Preachers.
At the end of 1999 the government started a campaign of cultural promotion, with literature, plastics and music included in new ‘university for everyone’ projects, alongside transmissions on state TV of English, literature and history classes.
This sparked appearances by Fidel at cultural inaugurations and events, appearances which were deemed surprising considering Castro spent years distancing himself from Cuban cultural life.
The Manics gig is heralded as the second step in a process of using music as a beacon of the visible change being engineered by Castro, as two months earlier on the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s death on 8th December 2000, he unveiled a bronze statue in a Havana park of the Beatles singer/guitarist.
At the ceremony for Lennon’s statue, Castro told reporters, “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.”
El mandatario, quien se mantuvo durante años bastante apartado de la vida cultural cubana, ha asistido en los últimos meses a casi todas las inauguraciones y clausuras de distintos eventos y a espectáculos.
And with respect to the Manic Street Preachers gig, Castro himself wasn’t an all too passive observer, with the then 74 year old standing to applaud the Manic’s song Baby Elian – named after the Cuban child at the centre of a custody dispute with US based relatives and one which regards the US as ‘the devil’s playground.’
It was a concert that literally shook the theatre, with the seats vibrating every time drummer Sean Moore hit his kit. So loud in fact, that some older members of the government were seen with their hands covering their ears.
Backed by a 8m x 13m Cuban flag backdrop – one which Nicky Wire confirmed was used as a ‘gesture of solidarity’, the 5000 strong throng of Cuban youths in attendance, alongside Castro, were treated to an hour of music as the Manics powered through songs off their sixth album, Know Your Enemy.
The concert, unlike that of The Stones, was not a free event. Instead, tickets were distributed out by the Cuban Music Institute and Cultural Ministry to students of music schools, pre-university students and invited guests – dubbed ‘well mannered’ guests by observers. The cost for each ticket was 25 centivos – approximately 17 pence.
It took a while for the crowd to get into the music, but, as those in attendance suggested, the sheer volume of noise created by the Manics won them over. Although the main mood of the night was one of curiosity rather than hysteria, with the loudest cheer of the evening reserved for Castro’s entrance.
“That the president of the island comes to this concert is truly a revolution,” said Gil Pla, a singer with local rock group Joker, who was at the concert. “For a long time, we were catalogued as anti-socials, but this shows that now we are OK, they have realized that rock is culture too.”
Castro chatted with the band before their performance, where it is reported Nicky Wire, fearing for Fidel’s hearing, told him: “It might be a bit loud tonight,” to which Castro replied: “Will it be as loud as war?”While singer James Dean Bradfield explained via a translator that he was nervous as Castro was mentioned in the song Let Robeson Sing (‘Went to Cuba to meet Castro, never got past sleepy Moscow’).
Fidel stayed for the whole concert, sitting next to his Minister for Culture Abel Prieto – a man who, in times of rock and roll subversion as the authorities considered it diversionary and a bad influence on young people declared his love of the Beatles.
It was subsequently reported how one of those responsible for bringing the Manics to the country noted his surprise at how much Castro actually knew about the work of the Welsh band. All the more remarkable considering Fidel’s previous observations that Western rock music was a threat to the socialist system and the incarnation of ‘decadent values’ of the West.
The gig was made possible thanks to the intervention of MP Peter Hain, a Manics fan who first met the band during the campaign for a Welsh assembly and who used his contacts to convince the Cubans of their left-wing credentials.
The day after the show, the Manics appeared on the front page of the Communist Party daily paper Granma, as they toured various points of interest on the island as if visiting dignitaries participating in an official state visit
Prior to the Manic’s show, the last Western band to play in Havana was back in 1979, when Billy Joel and Kris Kristofferson defied the cultural embargo of Cuba to play.