Latin Grammy Award winner Pablo Milanes, who helped found 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 leukemia. He was 79 years old.
One of the most internationally recognized Cuban singer-songwriters, he recorded scores of albums and hits like “Yolanda”, “Yo Me Quedo” (I’m Staying) and “Amo Esta Isla” (I Love This Island) during his career spanning more than five decades.
“The culture in Cuba is mourning the death of Pablo Milanes,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz wrote on Twitter.
Milan representatives said he died early Tuesday in Madrid. In early November, he announced that he had been hospitalized and canceled concerts.
Pablo Milanes was born on February 24, 1943 in the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo, the youngest of five siblings born to working-class parents. His musical career began with his singing in local radio and television competitions and many times he won them.
His family moved to Havana, where he studied at the Conservatory of Music of Havana during the 1950s, but he credited neighborhood musicians rather than formal training for his early inspiration, 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), for which he composed his first song in 1963: “Tu Mi Desengano,” (You, My Disillusion), which was about moving on from a lost love.
In 1970 he wrote the popular Latin American love song “Yolanda”, which remains a perennial favorite from the touristy cafés of Old Havana to the cantinas of Mexico City.
Milanes supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but was nonetheless targeted by the authorities during the early years of Fidel Castro’s government, when all forms of “alternative” expression were highly suspect. Millan was reportedly harassed for wearing his hair afro, and was given a compulsory labor detail for his interest in foreign music.
However, those experiences did not dampen his revolutionary fervor, and he began incorporating politics into his songwriting, collaborating with musicians such as Silvio Rodriguez and Noel Nicola.
The three are considered the founders of the Cuban “Nueva Trova”, a typical guitar-based musical style that traces the ballads composed by the troubadour people during the island’s wars of independence. Imbued with the spirit of 1960s American protest songs, nueva trova uses musical storytelling to highlight social problems.
Milanes and Rodriguez in particular became close, touring the stages of the world as cultural ambassadors for the Cuban Revolution, and bonding during raucous sessions.
“If Silvio Rodriguez and I got together, rum was always there. We were always three, not two,” Milanes told El Pais in 2003.
Milanes was friendly with Castro and critical of US foreign policy, and even served as a member of parliament for the communist government. He considered himself loyal to the revolution and spoke of his pride in serving Cuba.
Milanes once told The New York Times, “I am a worker who labors with songs, doing in my own way what I know best, like no other Cuban worker.” “I am true to my reality, to my revolution and the way I was raised.”
In 1973, Milanes recorded “Versos Sencillos,” which turned poems of Cuban independence hero José Martí into songs. Another composition became a rallying call for the political left of the Americas: “Song for Latin American Unity,” which hailed Castro as Martí’s heir and South American champion of liberation Simón Bolívar, and portrayed the Cuban Revolution as a model for other nations.
In 2006, when Castro stepped down as president due to a life-threatening illness, Milanes joined other prominent artists and intellectuals in voicing their support for the government. He promised to represent Castro and Cuba “as this moment deserves: with unity and courage in the face of any threat or provocation.”
However, he was not afraid to speak his mind and now and then publicly advocated for more freedom on the island.
In 2010, he supported an opposition hunger strike that was calling for the release of political prisoners. Milanes told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that Cuba’s aging leaders were “stuck in time”. “History must advance with new ideas and new men.”
The following year, when the island was making economic changes that would allow more free market activity, he pressured President Raul Castro to do more. “Those freedoms were seen in small doses, and we hope they will grow over time,” Milanis told the AP.
Milanes disagreed without opposition, urging without pushing, adhering to Fidel Castro’s infamous 1961 admonition to the Cuban intelligentsia: “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.”
Milanes once said, “I disagree with many things in Cuba, and everyone knows that.”
Ever political even as Afro-descendants gave way to thin, gray locks trimmed more conservatively, in 2006 he contributed the song “Exodo” (Exodus), about lost friends left for other lands, to the album “Somos american” (Us Americans), a collection of American and Latin American artists’ songs about immigration.
Rodriguez and Milanese had a falling out in the 1980s for reasons that were not clear and were hardly on terms, although they maintained a mutual respect and Rodriguez collaborated musically with Milanese’s daughter.
Milanes won two Latin Grammy Awards in 2006 – Best Singer-Songwriter Album for the song “Como un Campo de Maiz” (Like a Cornfield) and Best Traditional Tropical Album for “AM/PM, Lineas Paralelas” (AM/PM, Parallel Lines), a collaboration With Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montañez.
He has also won several Cuban honors including the Alejo Carpentier Medal in 1982 and the National Music Prize in 2005, and the 2007 Heidi Santamaría Medal from Casa de las Americas for his contributions to Latin American culture.