HAVANA — Pablo Milanés, 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 like “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 Monday night.
Milanés’ representatives issued a statement saying he had died early Tuesday in Madrid.
In early November, he announced he was being hospitalized and canceled concerts.
Pablo Milanés was born Feb. 24, 1943, in the eastern city of Bayamo, in what was then Oriente province, 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 neighborhood musicians rather than formal training for his early inspiration, along with trends from the United States and other countries.
In the early ’60s 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 favorite everywhere from Old Havana’s tourist cafes to Mexico City cantinas.
Spanish newspaper El Pais asked Milanés in 2003 how many women he had flirted with by saying they inspired the song. “None,” he responded, laughing. “But many have told me: ‘My child is the product of ‘Yolanda.'”
Milanés 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. Milanés 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 fervor, 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 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 nueva trova uses musical storytelling to highlight social problems.
Milanés and Rodríguez in particular became close, touring the world’s stages as cultural ambassadors for the Cuban Revolution, and bonding during boozy sessions.
“If Silvio Rodríguez and I got together, the rum was always there,” Milanés told El Pais in 2003. “We were always three, not two.”
Milanés was friendly with Castro, critical of U.S. 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 at serving Cuba.
“I am a worker who labors with songs, doing in my own way what I know best, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanés 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, Milanés recorded “Versos Sencillos,” which turned poems by Cuban Independence hero José Martí 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 Martí and South American liberation hero Simon Bolívar, 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, Milanés 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 aging leaders “are stuck in time,” Milanés 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,” Milanés told The Associated Press.
Milanés disagreed without dissenting, prodded without pushing, hewing to Fidel 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,” Milanés once said.
Ever political even when his bushy afro had given way to more conservatively trimmed, gray, thinning locks, in 2006 he contributed the song “Exodo” (Exodus), about missing friends who have departed for other lands, to the album “Somos Americans” (We Are Americans), a compilation of U.S. and Latin American artists’ songs about immigration.
Rodríguez and Milanés 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 Rodríguez collaborated musically with Milanés’ daughter.
Milanés 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.
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), a collaboration with Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montanez.
He also won numerous Cuban honors 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.