FIDEL WAS A MANIC STREET PREACHER – the concert that signalled a shift in Cuban culture

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

INTERVIEW: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Leah Shapiro on getting healthy and keeping the beat going.

This year represents 15 years since San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their debut B.R.M.C album. A true milestone for a band in constant pursuit of producing pure, unadulterated rock and roll, they have, in recent years, literally went through hell and back. Firstly, with the death of Robert Levon Been’s father – and BRMC sound engineer – Michael Been, in 2010, followed by the more recent news in 2014 that drummer Leah Shapiro required treatment for Chiari malformations found in her brain.

For Denmark born Leah – former drummer with Dead Combo and The Ravonettes – the thought of not being able to pick up her sticks in the face of her surgery and subsequent recovery was as dark a road to go down as there is for any musician.

“That was a pretty fucking scary thought. The whole year and a half of touring Spectre i had so many problems. I was losing my mind or seriously losing my ability to play the way that I was used to which was pretty scary. I guess there was a sense of relief in finding out why that was happening cause I was kinda going crazy over it . Like every night I would feel like it was flying around in a roller coaster while trying to play drums at the same time. The recovery process was pretty brutal and there was also the fear of how everything was going to feel after it.”


As luck would have it, the surgeon tasked with drilling into her brain happened to be a BRMC fan himself, and he was able to fine tune a ‘drum recovery’ process that enabled Leah to come back to almost full health.

“Yeh he was a fan of the band, it was fucking awesome. He was really incredibly helpful and he wrote out about a whole new programme which I started about three months after the surgery to get back on the drums. Had I not had that I’d have been completely fucking lost. I mean I would have no way of knowing what my limits where or how to pace myself or a what a responsible way to getting back to here was at all so it was really helpful.”

Serendipity or not, her long road from sleepy Aarhus in her native Denmark to life in LA via New York as one third of one of the best rock and roll bands of the last two decades is one that had a little to do with a certain incident with a bird in New York’s Times Square.

“I was working this shitty fucking office job in Times Square and I’d just gotten out of the Subway and like this bird just fell out of the sky dead in front of me. That was kind of a moment when i was like ‘Ok I’ve gotta not be doing this any more, anything else is better than this shit,’ and that kind of led to me joining Dead Combo which was really what opened the door for both BRMC and The Ravonettes – I think the first show I did with Dead Combo was opening with The Ravonettes and then we got to do some BRMC shows during their Baby 81 tour and i stayed in touch with Rob and here we are.”

It’s not often musicians get to support a band on tour before making the transition to become part of that band and its something that’s not lost on Leah, one that gives her a heightened sense of just what makes BRMC who they are and what they represent.

“It was kind of interesting to get to tour with them with an opening band before I joined them. I remember being in the crowd watching and there was this really special energy and, like, some sort of vibe that I’d never really seen before live with other bands. I watched the shows every night and I couldn’t get tired of it. It was always really exciting that you didn’t hear the songs as it is on the records, the set changed from night to night and always had a different element to it depending on what the room was like any given night. Now, every night we play I hope that even though I’m behind the drums I hope that energy is still the same one that I could feel.”

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Having just completed a 16 date autumn US co-headlining tour with Death From Above 1979 – alongside Deap Vally, Shapiro is finding it great being back in the saddle with the band after such a long period of recovery from her brain surgery.

“Yeh I mean this is probably my first proper tour where I’ve been fully healed up from my injuries and shit so it’s is a nice feeling just to play without all of those issues. We’ve toured with Deap Vally before so we know them and the Death From Above guys really well, so its probably been one of my favourite tours as far as the lineup and people.”

And although the present musical landscape seems bereft of bands that share a similar approach to pure, no holds barred rock and roll like BRMC do, Leah isn’t one to start complaining, especially given her love of both of their current touring partners, Deap Vally and Death From Above.

“I’m not that frustrated, I think just being on tour with the awesome bands and watching them kick ass every night kind of takes away some of the frustration away – you get a little jaded but there’s plenty of cool stuff going on just maybe not in the mainstream. Its hard enough at the best of times for bands.”

With a new album most likely in the early part of 2017, the tour has given the band the chance to come up with and road test some new material.

“We’ve always used soundchecks to kind of at least get the process of new ideas started and we have like a million little shitty iPhones; recording our new ideas. It’s a cool setting to start the writing process when your on a big stage with a big sound. Everything sounds better than being in the little confined tiny rehearsal space so its a little bit more fun.”

And with the signs all pointing in the right direction, Leah is quietly confident of a return to a full touring schedule next year in support of what will be the band’s eighth record.

“We’ve been testing out two of the new songs which we’ve done in the studio prior to starting this tour and when we finish up next week it’ll be back in the rehearsal studio writing again and hopefully recording and then we will be back out on the road before we know it.”

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The last few years haven’t been easy on the band, with, alongside Leah’s diagnosis, surgery and subsequent recovery, the death of bandmate Robert Levon Been’s father Michael in 2010 – after he suffered a heart attack backstage at a festival in Belgium.

The loss was hard to take for Leah, who credits Been’s father with her progression as a drummer, thanks to his own unique training regime he placed on her when she joined BRMC following Nick Jago’s departure back in 2008.

“A big part of me getting to where I am now as a drummer was Michael putting me through an epic boot camp when i first started with the band. i wasn’t super happy at the time. It was pretty intense but it definitely helped shape my playing and my approach to music in general. He sort of got me to be a little bit more free and I kind of learned to be OK with the mistakes that were going to happen inevitably both in recording and live onstage and learned just kind of go with it and make the fucked up parts work to your advantage, if that makes sense.”

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For Leah, what has happened is that the band have pulled together more than ever in the face of such tragedy.

“I mean we’ve gone through some pretty insane shit before. We spend a lot of time together so we are all very close and i feel like there’s more of a family vibe than other bands I’ve played with in the past and I like that. A lot of the guys that are on the road with us have been with the band for as long as I have or even longer so there’s that whole element to it as well. I suppose we are our own kind of weird little dysfunctional family (laughing).”

The story goes that Leah learned around 40 songs in two weeks when she first joined the band midway through their tour off the back of the Baby 81 album, and ever since then, Leah has taken more and more of a creative role alongside bandmates Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been with regards to new material.

“In the beginning i was playing all the material that already existed and when I first started I just tried to mimic the drumming as much as i possibly could to make the transition not like too awkward for Rob and Pete and I guess for the audience as well. I think that when we first started writing Beat The Devil’s Tattoo I started to kind of observe what the process was and figure out my place in it. So its now its been like 8 and a half years or something like that so I’m a little bit more comfortable than I was!”

Her footprint on the band’s material is more than present, not just through her military like – pounding drums – which formed the creative starting point to the development of lead single ‘Let The Day Begin’ from Spectre – a cover of Robert’s dad’s band The Call’s original 1989 release. Her interest in literature and poetry has borne fruit lyrically, her input stamped all over the band’s last two album releases.

“Well at the time when I first got to LA, Rob and I were living in this like, sort of one of those furnished short term apartments and I happened to have some of my books my dad had given to me and some that I’d bought myself. So they were around and I remember showing him things. “Annabel Lee” (from 2011’s ‘Live in London’ release) came out of that. It’s not like an intentional thing but when its around I guess it hopefully influences us but it’s not something I try to force on anybody.”

Interestingly given the high intensity required to provide the engine for BRMC’s motoring sound, Leah feels that playing live she often finds herself in a trance-like, meditative state, as the dreamy ‘Alive’, from BRMC’s debut release – and Leah’s favourite song to play – illustrates.

“Well I mean there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of focus on the flow and feel of it so when I really focus in on it and I’m having a good day when I’m playing well It gets really transitory really quickly and a lot of the music – the more psychedelic stuff – it really lends itself to that. Like you kind of float into some other place which is nice. It’s nice to stop worrying about how your are supposed to be feeling, it just kind of happens.”

Brought up listening to her American father’s record collection, she wasn’t the typical wannabe drummer who, from an early age, was banging tabletops and boxes with anything they could find their hands on.

“I started I guess a little bit later than most people would have, but I just kinda immediately got obsessive about it. I tried to learn other instruments and I completely fucking sucked at it and it didn’t feel natural to me at all and I remember the first day playing the drums it just felt natural to me.”

And with no doubt a few UK dates to pencil in for next year with the release of their new album, Leah is keen to get back out in front of British audiences – even if that means dodging the odd flying pint.

“Oh yeh it’s just so rowdy and fun I love that. I like a good drunk crowd throwing beers at us (laughs) although usually they don’t hit me so that’s why i don’t mind it! I remember Rob getting hit with a beer right in the face in Glasgow at the Barrowlands, I think on the 2010 tour. Maybe next time it’ll be me although it’s a little harder to hit me. I guess that will be the challenge for next year at our shows.”