In recent months Cuba has been celebrating 50 years since the first festival of the Nueva Trova movement, musicians who from the mid-60s onwards were creating poetic anthems mixing protest song with reflections on love. Those songs became the soundtrack of the generation who grew up with the revolution. So when the news came in November 2022 of the death of Pablo Milanés at the age of 79, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted “One of our greatest musicians has gone.” Culture Minister, Alpidio Alonso, said “there are no words that can express the enormity of the loss that the death of Pablo Milanés represents for Cuban culture. His poetic and musical legacy is immortal.”
Born in eastern Cuba in 1943, the son of a dressmaker and craftsman, Pablo moved to Havana where his mother pushed him to study piano at the Conservatory. He abandoned his studies to follow performer-composers such as Luis Carbonell, Maria Teresa Vera and soneros like Benny Moré. In 1959 Pablo joined El Cuarteto del Rey, an a-capella group singing gospel. He discovered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and later said “Listening to Bach is an everyday occurrence…The baroque musical world fills me completely.” At the same time he lapped up Cuban filin’ (’feeling’), songs using harmony to express great emotions, as well as Cuban bolero and son. This range of early influences, plus more from Brazil and Mexico, can be heard in his work, but the songs were never just about the music. They were poems to be sung and heard, and often served to unite people in difficult times.
Much is made by Cuba’s critics of Pablo’s time as a young man in an agricultural military service camp being made to cut cane (the camps were closed soon after in 1968 and the injustice acknowledged later by Fidel Castro), but the truth is that Pablo committed to the revolution despite its imperfections. He described himself to the New York Times in 1987 as “a worker who labours with songs, doing in my own way what I know best, like any other Cuban worker. I am faithful to my reality, to my revolution and the way in which I have been brought up.”
By 1969 Pablo, along with Silvio Rodriguez, Noel Nicola and others who went on to found the Nueva Trova movement, had been taken under the wing of composer Leo Brouwer to join the new experimental music for film group GES (Grupo de Experimentación Sonora) at the film institute ICAIC. It became a hub for musical innovation, mixing traditional music with new forms for cinema.
Probably Pablo’s most famous track of all time is ‘Yolanda’ first recorded in 1970. Pablo had met Yolanda Benet while working at ICAIC. They fell in love and when she gave birth to their first child Pablo composed this great love song to celebrate the moment:
This cannot be more than a song;
I want it to be a declaration of love,
romantic, ignoring those ways
that put a stop to what I feel right now in abundance.
I love you, I love you, eternally, I love you.
Another international hit was ‘Yo Me Quedo’ (I’m Staying) recorded in 1980 but the song continued to resonate in the early 1990s in Cuba when the special period of austerity began and many people with connections abroad considered leaving.
What house will shelter you,
on which corner can you stand,
what neighbourhood will you run through
to find yourself?
Which neighbour will talk to you, what comrade will go looking for you,
what friend will you share to give you?
I am staying with all those things…
Soon after Pablo wrote the popular anthem “Amo Esta Isla” (I love this island, I am Caribbean) with long-term collaborator and friend Silvio Rodríguez. In 1987, the New York Times, called Rodriguez and Milanés, “as much a symbol of Cuba and its revolution as Fidel Castro and his beard.”
Pablo produced more than 400 songs and 50 albums, some dedicated to condemning dictatorships in Latin America, some expressing the poetry of Nicolas Guillén or José Martí, and many more reflecting on love and commitment. Despite his occasional critical comments to foreign press, Pablo continued to perform, make records and receive prestigious awards in Cuba, as well as two Latin Grammys from the US. If you want to witness the eternal love for Pablo, known affectionately as Pablito by Cubans, watch his concert in Havana last summer. It has become his farewell.
Pablo Milanes 24 February 1943 – 22 November 2022
For full lyrics see www.milanespablo.com
Watch Pablo’s concert in Havana in June 2022 on youtube