Pablo Milanés, the legendary Cuban singer-songwriter widely known as Pablito, died in Madrid on Monday. He was 79.
The founder of the Cuban nueva trova (the new song movement), Milanés toured the world as a cultural ambassador for Fidel Castro’s revolution. The Latin Grammy-winning singer recorded dozens of albums and was beloved for his international hits including “Yo Me Quedo” (I’m Staying) and “Amo Esta Isla” (I Love This Island).
His death was confirmed on his official Facebook. “With great pain and sadness, we regret to report that Maestro Pablo Milanés has passed away,” representatives for Milanés wrote (originally in Spanish, translated here in English). “We deeply appreciate all the shows of love and support, to all his family and friends, in this very difficult time. May he rest in the love and peace he always transcended. He will remain forever in our memory.”
Earlier in November, the singer was hospitalized and canceled several concerts. He was undergoing treatment in Spain for blood cancer, AP reports.
Milanés was born in the eastern city of Bayamo on Feb. 24, 1943. He was the youngest of five siblings in a working class family, and his musical career began with him singing for local TV and radio contests. Although he formally studied at the Havana Musical Conservatory when his family moved to the capital in the 1950s, he credited his neighborhood musicians for his source of inspiration early in his career.
Milanés supported the 1959 Cuban Revolution and worked with musicians such as Silvio Rodríguez and Noel Nicola. The three artists are known as the founders of the Cuban nueva trova, which weaved politicized lyrics with musical storytelling.
In 1987, the New York Times, called Rodriguez and Milanés, who were close collaborators, “as much a symbol of Cuba and its revolution as Fidel Castro and his beard.” In the article, a “stirring” performance by Milanés for the President of Peru at the time, Alan Garcia, was credited for “breaking a diplomatic deep freeze between Cuba and Peru.”
“The success of Silvio and Pablo is the success of the Revolution,” Fidel Castro was quoted saying at a Havana reception in 1984 held in honor of the artists and the musical movement they began.
In 1970 Milanés wrote, “Yolanda,” a love song that remains an enduring favorite in Latin America, and in 1982 he penned “Amo Esta Isla” (I Love This Island) with Rodríguez.
When Castro stepped down as president in 2006, according to AP, Milanés voiced his support for the government and pledged to represent Castro and Cuba “as this moment deserves: with unity and courage in the presence of any threat or provocation.”
Milanés’ career spanned over five decades and he was awarded numerous Cuban honors including the Alejo Carpentier medal in 1982 and the 2007 Haydee Santamaria medal from the Casa de las Americas for his impact on Latin American culture.
In 2006, Milanés won two Latin Grammys for 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 Andy Montanez.
”I am a worker who labors with songs, doing in my own way what I know best, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanes told the New York Times in 1987. ”I am faithful to my reality, to my revolution and the way in which I have been brought up.”