Pablo Milanés, the Latin Grammy-winning ballad singer who co-founded Cuba’s Nueva Trova movement and toured the world as a cultural ambassador for Fidel Castro’s revolution, has died in Spain, where he was being treated for blood cancer. He was 79.
One of the most internationally renowned Cuban singer-songwriters, he recorded dozens of albums and hits such as “Yolanda”, “Yo Me Quedo” (I’m Staying) and “Amo Esta Isla” (I Love This Island) during his career, which lasted more than five decades.
“The culture in Cuba mourns the death of Pablo Milanés,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz tweeted.
Milanés officials said he died in Madrid early Tuesday. In early November, he announced he was being hospitalized and was canceling concerts.
Pablo Milanés was born on February 2nd. Born August 19, 1943 in the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo, the youngest of five siblings to working-class parents. His musical career began singing in, and often winning, local television and radio competitions.
His family moved to Havana, where he studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music in the 1950s, but he attributed his early inspiration to neighborhood musicians rather than formal education, along with trends from the United States and other countries.
In the early 1960s he was in several groups, including Cuarteto del Rey (The King’s Quartet), and in 1963 he composed his first song, “Tu Mi Desengano” (You, My Disillusionment), about overcoming a lost love.
In 1970 he wrote the seminal Latin American love song “Yolanda,” which is still a staple in tourist cafes from Old Havana to cantinas in Mexico City.
Milanés supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but was targeted by the authorities in the early years of Fidel Castro’s government, when all manner of “alternative” statements were highly suspect. Milanés was reportedly harassed for wearing his hair in an afro and given mandatory work details because of his interest in foreign music.
These experiences didn’t dampen his revolutionary zeal, however, and he began to incorporate politics into his songwriting, collaborating with musicians such as Silvio Rodríguez and Noel Nicola.
The three are considered the founders of the Cuban “nueva trova,” a typically guitar-based style of music that dates back to the ballads composed by troubadours during the island’s wars of independence. Infused with the spirit of 1960s American protest songs, Nueva Trova uses musical storytelling to highlight social issues.
Milanés and Rodríguez became particularly close, touring the world as cultural ambassadors of the Cuban Revolution and becoming friends during hilarious sessions.
“When Silvio Rodríguez and I got together, the space was always there,” Milanés told El Pais in 2003. “There were always three of us, not two.”
Milanés was friends with Castro and was critical of US foreign policy, even serving as a member of the communist government’s parliament. He considered himself loyal to the revolution and spoke of his pride in serving Cuba.
“I’m a worker who works with songs and does what I do best in my own way, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanés once told the New York Times. “I am true to my reality, my revolution and my upbringing.”
In 1973 Milanés recorded Versos Sencillos, which turned poems by Cuban independence hero José Martí into songs. Another composition became a rallying cry for America’s political left: “Song for Latin American Unity,” which hailed Castro as the heir to Martí and South American liberation hero Simon Bolívar, and made the Cuban Revolution a model for other nations.
When Castro resigned as president in 2006 due to a life-threatening illness, Milanés joined other prominent artists and intellectuals in expressing his support for the government. He pledged to represent Castro and Cuba “as this moment deserves: with unity and courage in the face of any threat or provocation.”
Nevertheless, he was not afraid to speak his mind and occasionally campaigned publicly for more freedom on the island.
In 2010 he supported a dissident hunger striker demanding the release of political prisoners. Cuba’s aging leaders are “stuck in time,” Milanés told Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “The story should advance with new ideas and new men.”
The following year, as the island enacted economic changes that would allow for greater free market activity, he lobbied for President Raul Castro to do even more. “These freedoms have been seen in small doses, and we hope they will grow with time,” Milanés told the Associated Press.
Milanés disagreed without contradicting, goading without urging, echoing Fidel Castro’s infamous 1961 warning to the Cuban intellectual class: “Within the revolution everything; nothing outside of the revolution.”
“I disagree with a lot of things in Cuba and everyone knows it,” Milanés once said.
Always political, though his bushy afro has given way to more conservatively cropped, graying, thinning locks, he contributed the song “Exodo” (Exodus) to the 2006 album Somos Americans, about missing friends who have left for other countries. (We Are Americans), a compilation of US and Latin American artist songs about immigration.
Rodríguez and Milanés fell out in the 1980s for unclear reasons and hardly spoke to each other, although they maintained a mutual respect and Rodríguez collaborated musically with Milanés’ daughter.
Milanés won two Latin Grammys in 2006 – Best Singer-Songwriter Album for “Como un Campo de Maiz” (Like a Cornfield) and Best Traditional Tropical Album for “AM/PM, Lineas Paralelas” (AM/PM, Parallel Lines), et al Collaboration with Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montanez.
He has also won numerous Cuban honors, including the 1982 Alejo Carpentier Medal and the 2005 National Music Prize, and the 2007 Haydee Santamaria Medal from the Casa de las Americas for his contributions to Latin American culture.