Pablo Milanés, who died in Madrid this week at 79, left behind a body of labor that was deeply personal at the same time as he navigated one in every of the Twentieth century’s most tumultuous political experiments, the Cuban Revolution. His profession was an open dialogue with the revolutionary government that had once disciplined him, then propped him up as one in every of its strongest ideological icons. More recently Milanés, who moved to Spain several years ago to hunt cancer treatment, resumed his critical stance toward the Cuban government. But he never renounced his artistic labor, that of the singer with a story to inform about loves lost and won, a towering voice with a guitar and a way of poetry and swing.
While some may define Milanés’s profession as a product of a Cuban reality, long estranged from america, his art and its appeal had broad international repercussions. Having begun his profession in his hometown, Bayamo, singing boleros and Mexican rancheras, he eventually collaborated with Latin American legends just like the recently departed Gal Costa, in addition to Milton Nascimento, Lucecita Benítez and Fito Páez. As one in every of the originators of the post-revolutionary genre nueva trova, he combined elements of Cuban son and guaracha with soul, jazz and folk rock.
His “Son de Cuba a Puerto Rico” from 1978 immediately modified the way in which I assumed in regards to the Caribbean’s sea-disrupted continuity, and the still-unfolding story of two former Spanish colonies. With its opening lyric — based on a poem by the early Twentieth-century Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió — proclaiming that the 2 islands were “two wings of the identical bird,” the song was an emotional reverie about divergent destinies and a desire for a shared future. “I invite you on my flight,” he crooned, “and we’ll search together for a similar sky.”
Milanés’s first successful recording, “Mis 22 Años” (“My 22 Years”), released in 1965, was emblematic of the role he played within the evolution of trova in Cuba. The unique trovadores were migrant troubadours who also dabbled in bolero and bufo, a type of satirical musical theater, steadily incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythms. By the late Forties, an update of trova called filin (a Spanish spelling of “feeling”) emerged, influenced by American jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. “Mis 22 Años” is grounded in filin, yet some consider it the primary nueva trova song.
The nueva trova movement was alleged to represent a break from older traditions of socially conscious music in Cuba and help to define the “Recent Man” promoted by its leaders. It was a genre cobbled together from the voices of kids of the revolution, some singing its praises, others difficult what they saw as restrictions. Milanés was deemed to be rebellious and, in line with a 2015 interview he gave to El País, he hung out in UMAP, a forced labor camp where dissidents and homosexuals were sent.
Within the Nineteen Seventies nueva trova became a serious force in Cuban music, with Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, who openly borrowed from American folk-rock artists like Bob Dylan, its leading figures. While Milanés and Rodríguez often worked together and supported one another, in some ways they symbolized Cuba’s racial complexity. Milanés set poems by the Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén to music and collaborated with the Afro-Cuban filin singers Elena Burke and Omara Portuondo, while the lighter-skinned Rodríguez was famously connected with the people singer Pete Seeger.
Milanés was only when he reached into those deeper recesses where Black singers find soul, like Al Green at his most craving. His striking tenor was all of the more powerful when it wavered in emotion — a slight trill paints the chorus of songs like “Yolanda,” dedicated to his former wife. In “La Vida no Vale Nada,” which insists that life has no value so long as there are victims of violence and the remaining of us remain silent, Milanés is maybe at his heart-aching best, sharply poignant, wounded yet determined.
Milanés’s syncopated swing and filin-flavored nueva trova translates just a little more easily to the Puerto Rican wing of his mythical Caribbean bird. In 1994, a recent salsa version of “Son de Cuba a Puerto Rico” was recorded by the Afro-Cuban singer Issac Delgado on “Con Ganas,” which was distributed by the U.S. label Qbadisc; it introduced him to American listeners and stays popular in Puerto Rico. Within the improvisational section, Delgado name-checks the Puerto Rican favorites Rafael Hernández, Tite Curet, Cheo Feliciano and Ismael Rivera, and the rhetorical feel of the unique becomes more of a dance party.
Within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, Milanés wrote a song called “Yo Me Quedo” (“I’m Staying”), which resonated deeply with Puerto Ricans since it expressed a desire not to go away the Caribbean island that birthed him, seemingly intended to discourage out-migration. He even performed it in Puerto Rico, riding on its wave of loyalty and patriotism as he marched through reasons — the fragrant humidity, the “small, silent things” — that made it not possible to go away. A couple of years later, the Puerto Rican salsero Tony Vega covered it, indulging in all of the materialist trappings of Nineteen Eighties “salsa sensual,” yet still resonating with locals, losing nothing within the cross-Caribbean translation.
With Milanés’s passing, the contradictions of his life, and the juxtaposition of Cuba’s and Puerto Rico’s fates come into sharper focus. While the islands feature vastly different political systems, each struggle with electrical blackouts, economic austerity and sometimes harsh living conditions that increasingly generate street protest.
Yet at the same time as Milanés continued to talk out against the Cuban government, he was still allowed to return as recently as 2019 to perform massively popular live shows in Havana, performing classics like “Amo Esta Isla” (“I Love This Island”), a song he wrote around the identical time he recorded “Yo Me Quedo.” It was a moment when ideology took a back seat to Milanés’s unparalleled talent as a troubadour of affection, compelling everyone to achieve for the sky.