Pablo Milanés dies: Grammy-winning Cuban singer was 79

Pablo Milanés, the Grammy-winning Latin balladeer who helped launch Cuba’s “nueva trova” movement and toured the world as a cultural ambassador for Fidel Castro’s revolution, has died in Spain, where he had been undergoing treatment for blood cancer. He was 79.

One of Cuba’s most internationally renowned 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 a career that lasted for more than five decades.

“The culture of Cuba mourns the death of Pablo Milanés,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz tweeted.

Milanés’ representatives said he died early Tuesday in Madrid. In early November, he announced that he was in the hospital and canceled concerts.

Pablo Milanés was born in Feb. 24, 1943, in the city of Bayamo in eastern Cuba, the youngest of five siblings born to working-class parents. His music career began with him singing in and often winning local television and radio competitions.

His family moved to Havana, where he studied at the Conservatory of Havana in the 1950s, but he credited neighborhood musicians rather than formal training for his early inspiration, along with influences from the United States and other countries.

Pablo Milanés smiles into the microphone.

Pablo Milanés in Buenos Aires in 2004.

(Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

In the early 1960s, he was in several groups including Cuarteto del Rey (The Royal Quartet), who wrote his first song in 1963: “Tu Mi Desengano,” (You, My Disillusion), which talked about moving on from a lost love.

In 1970, he wrote the primitive Latin American love song “Yolanda,” which remains a favorite from the tourist cafes of Old Havana to the cafeterias of Mexico City.

Milanés supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959, but was nonetheless targeted by the authorities during the early years of Fidel Castro’s government, when any kind of “alternative” expression was highly suspect. Milanés is said to have been harassed for wearing his hair in an afro and forced to work because of his interest in foreign music.

That experience did not dampen his revolutionary enthusiasm, however, and he began to incorporate politics into his songwriting, collaborating with musicians such as Silvio Rodriguez and Noel Nicola.

The three are considered the founders of Cuban “nueva trova”, a typical guitar music that traces back to the ballads composed by troubadours during the island’s wars of independence. Steeped in the spirit of American protest songs of the 1960s, nueva trova uses musical history to shed light on social issues.

In particular, Milanés and Rodriguez became closer, traveling the world as cultural ambassadors of the Cuban Revolution and bonding over drugs.

“If Silvio Rodriguez and I got together, the room was always there,” Milanés told El Pais in 2003. “We were always three, not two.”

Milanés was friendly with Castro and criticized US foreign policy and even sat in 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, doing in my own way what I know best, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanés once told the New York Times. “I am true to my reality, my revolution and the way I was raised.”

In 1973, Milanés recorded “Versos Sencillos”, turning 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 freedom hero Simon Bolívar, and set the Cuban revolution as a model for other nations.

In 2006, when Castro stepped down as president due to a life-threatening illness, Milanés joined other prominent artists and intellectuals in declaring their support for the government. He promised to represent Castro and Cuba “as befits this moment: with unity and courage in the face of any threat or provocation.”

Still, he was not afraid to speak his mind and occasionally spoke 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. “History should develop with new ideas and new people.”

The following year, as the island was implementing economic changes that would allow more free market activity, he lobbied President Raul Castro to do even more. “This freedom has been seen in small doses and we hope it will grow over time,” Milanés told The Associated Press.

Milanés disagreed without opposing, pushed without pushing, echoing Fidel Castro’s infamous 1961 warning to Cuba’s intelligentsia: “Within the revolution, everything; apart from the revolution, nothing.”

“I disagree with many things in Cuba and everyone knows it,” Milanés once said.

Always political, even when his bushy afro had given way to a more conservative cut, grey, thinning locks, in 2006 he contributed the song “Exodus”, about lost friends who have gone to other countries, to the album “Somos Americans”. (We Are Americans), a collection of songs by American and South American artists about immigration.

Rodriguez and Milanés fell out in the 1980s for reasons that were unclear and barely mentioned, although they maintained mutual respect and Rodriguez collaborated musically with Milanés’ daughter.

Milanés won two Latin Grammy Awards in 2006 – Best Singer-Songwriter Album for “Como un Campo de Maiz” (Like a Cornfield) and Best Traditional Southern Album for “AM/PM, Lineas Paralelas” (AM/PM, Parallel lines) , a collaboration with Puerto Rican Salsa singer Andy Montanez.

He also won numerous Cuban honors, including the Alejo Carpentier Award in 1982 and the National Music Prize in 2005, and the 2007 Haydee Santamaria Medal from the Casa de las Americas for his contribution to South American culture.

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