Pablo Milanes, the Latin Grammy-winning balladeer 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 had been under treatment for blood cancer. He was 79.
One of the most internationally famous 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 a career that lasted more than five decades.
“The culture in Cuba is in mourning for the death of Pablo Milanes,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz tweeted in Spanish on Monday night.
Milanes' representatives issued a statement on Tuesday in Madrid, about his death.
In early November, he announced he was being admitted to hospital and cancelled concerts.
Milanes was born on February 24, 1943, in the eastern city of Bayamo, in what was then Oriente Province. He was the youngest of five siblings born to working-class parents. His musical career began with him singing in, and often winning, local TV and radio contests.
His family moved to the capital and he studied for a time at the Havana Musical Conservatory during the 1950s, but he credited neighbourhood musicians rather than formal training for his early inspiration, along with trends from the US and other countries.
In the early 1960s, he was in several groups including Cuarteto del Rey (the King’s Quartet), composing his first song in 1963: Tu, Mi Desengano, (You, My Disillusion), which spoke of moving on from a lost love.
“Your kisses don’t matter to me because I have a new love/to whom I promise you I will give my life,” the tune goes.
In 1970, he wrote the seminal Latin American love song Yolanda, which is still an enduring favourite everywhere from Old Havana’s tourist cafes to Mexico City cantinas.
Milanes supported the 1959 Cuban Revolution, but was nevertheless targeted by authorities during the early years of Fidel Castro’s government, when all manner of “alternative” expression was highly suspect. He was reportedly harassed for wearing his hair in an afro, and was given compulsory work detail for his interest in foreign music.
Those experiences did not dampen his revolutionary fervour, 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 the Cuban Nueva Trova, a usually guitar-based musical style tracing to the ballads that troubadours composed during the island’s wars of independence. Infused with the spirit of 1960s American protest songs, the genre uses musical storytelling to highlight social problems.
Milanes and Rodriguez in particular became close, touring the world’s stages as cultural ambassadors for the Cuban Revolution.
Milanes was friendly with Castro, critical of US foreign policy and for a time even a member of the communist government’s parliament. He considered himself loyal to the revolution and spoke of his pride in serving Cuba.
“I am a worker who labours with songs, doing in my own way what I know best, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanes once said, according to The New York Times. “I am faithful to my reality, to my revolution and the way in which I have been brought up.”
In 1973, Milanes recorded Versos sencillos, which turned poems by Cuban Independence hero Jose Marti into songs. Another composition became a kind of rallying call for the political left of the Americas: Song for Latin American Unity, which praised Castro as the heir of Marti and South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar, and cast 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 presence of any threat or provocation.”
Yet, he was unafraid to speak his mind and occasionally advocated publicly for more freedom on the island.
In 2010, he backed a dissident hunger striker who was demanding the release of political prisoners. Cuba’s ageing leaders “are stuck in time,” Milanes told Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “History should advance with new ideas and new men.”
The following year, as the island was enacting economic changes that would allow greater free-market activity, he lobbied for President Raul Castro to do more. “These freedoms have been seen in small doses, and we hope that with time they will grow,” Milanes told Associated Press.
Milanes disagreed without dissenting, prodded without pushing, hewing to Castro’s notorious 1961 warning to Cuba’s intellectual class: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.”
“I disagree with many things in Cuba, and everyone knows it,” Milanes once said.
Ever political even when his bushy afro had given way to more conservatively trimmed, grey, thinning locks, in 2006 he contributed the song Exodo (Exodus), about missing friends who have departed for other lands.
Rodriguez and Milanes had a falling out in the 1980s for reasons that were unclear and were barely on speaking terms, though they maintained a mutual respect and Rodriguez collaborated musically with Milanes’ daughter.
Milanes sang in the 1980′s album Amo Esta Isla that “I am from the Caribbean and could never walk on terra firma;” nevertheless, he divided most of his time between Spain and Mexico in later years.
By his own count, he underwent more than 20 leg surgeries.
Milanes 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), a collaboration with Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montanez.
He also won numerous Cuban honours including the Alejo Carpentier medal in 1982 and the National Music Prize in 2005, and the 2007 Haydee Santamaria medal from the Casa de las Americas for his contributions to Latin American culture.
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