Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés has died at the age of 79

HAVANA – Pablo Milanés, the Latin Grammy-winning ballad singer who co-founded Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” movement and toured the world as a cultural ambassador for Fidel Castro’s revolution, has died in Spain, where he was being treated for blood cancer. He was 79.

One of the most internationally renowned 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 his career, which lasted more than five decades.

“Cuba culture mourns the death of Pablo Milanes,” Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz tweeted Monday night.

Milanés representatives issued a statement saying he died in Madrid early Tuesday.

In early November, he announced he was being hospitalized and was canceling concerts.

Pablo Milanés was a Latin Grammy-winning ballad singer who helped found Cuba's
Pablo Milanés was a Latin Grammy-winning ballad singer who helped found Cuba’s “Nueva Trova” movement.

Pablo Milanés was born on February 24, 1943 in the eastern city of Bayamo in what was then Oriente province, the youngest of five siblings to working-class parents. His musical career began singing in, and often winning, local television and radio competitions

His family moved to the capital and he studied at the Havana Conservatory of Music for a time in the 1950s, but he attributed his early inspiration to neighborhood musicians rather than formal education, along with trends from the United States and elsewhere.

In the early 1960s he was in several groups, including Cuarteto del Rey (The King’s Quartet), and in 1963 he composed his first song, “Tu Mi Desengano” (You, My Disillusionment), about overcoming a lost love.

“I don’t care about your kisses because I have a new love/to whom I promise you I’ll give my life,” the tune reads.

In 1970 he wrote the seminal Latin American love song “Yolanda,” which is still a hit everywhere from the tourist cafes of Old Havana to the cantinas of Mexico City.

In 2003, Spanish newspaper El Pais asked Milanés how many women he had flirted with, saying they inspired the song. “None,” he replied, laughing. “But many have said to me, ‘My child is the product of ‘Yolanda’.”

Joaquin Sabina accepts the Golden Disc award from singer Pablo Milanes (R) May 21, 2002 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo Europa Press via Getty Images)
Europa Press via Getty Images

Milanés supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but was targeted by the authorities in the early years of Fidel Castro’s government, when all manner of “alternative” expressions were highly suspect. Milanés was reportedly harassed for wearing his hair in an afro and given mandatory work details because of his interest in foreign music.

These experiences didn’t dampen his revolutionary zeal, 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 mostly guitar-based style of music that dates back to the ballads composed by troubadours during the island’s wars of independence. Infused with the spirit of 1960s American protest songs, Nueva Trova uses musical storytelling to highlight social issues.

Milanés and Rodríguez became particularly close, touring the world as cultural ambassadors of the Cuban Revolution and becoming friends during hilarious sessions.

“Whenever Silvio Rodríguez and I got together, the rum was always there,” Milanés told El Pais in 2003. “There were always three of us, not two.”

Milanés was a friend of Castro, critical of US foreign policy, and at times 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’m a worker who works with songs and does what I do best in my own way, like any other Cuban worker,” Milanés once said, according to the New York Times. “I am true to my reality, my revolution and my upbringing.”

Pablo Milanés supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but was targeted by the authorities during the early years of Fidel Castro's government.
Pablo Milanés supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but was targeted by the authorities during the early years of Fidel Castro’s government.
AFP via Getty Images

In 1973 Milanés recorded Versos Sencillos, which turned poems by Cuban independence hero José Martí into songs. Another composition became something of a rallying cry for America’s political left: “Song for Latin American Unity,” which hailed Castro as the heir to Martí and South American liberation hero Simon Bolívar, and made the Cuban Revolution a model for other nations.

When Castro resigned as president in 2006 due to a life-threatening illness, Milanés joined other prominent artists and intellectuals in expressing his support for the government. He pledged to represent Castro and Cuba “as this moment deserves: with unity and courage in the face of any threat or provocation.”

Nevertheless, he was not afraid to speak his mind and occasionally campaigned publicly for more freedom on the island.

In 2010 he supported a dissident hunger striker demanding the release of political prisoners. Cuba’s aging leaders are “stuck in time,” Milanés told Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “The story should advance with new ideas and new men.”

The following year, as the island enacted economic changes that would allow for greater free market activity, he lobbied for President Raul Castro to do more. “These freedoms were seen in small doses, and we hope they will grow with time,” Milanés told The Associated Press.

Milanés disagreed without contradicting, goading without urging, echoing Fidel Castro’s infamous 1961 warning to the Cuban intellectual class: “Within the revolution everything; nothing outside of the revolution.”

“I disagree with a lot of things in Cuba and everyone knows it,” Milanés once said.

Always political, though his bushy afro had given way to more conservatively cropped, graying, thinning locks, he contributed the song “Exodo” (Exodus) to the 2006 album Somos Americans, about missing friends who have left for other countries. (We Are Americans), a compilation of US and Latin American artist songs about immigration.

Rodríguez and Milanés fell out in the 1980s for unclear reasons and hardly spoke to each other, although they maintained a mutual respect and Rodríguez collaborated musically with Milanés’ daughter.

Milanés sang on the 1980s album Amo esta isla that “I’m from the Caribbean and I could never walk on solid ground”; Despite this, in later years he divided most of his time between Spain and Mexico.

By his own account, 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), et al Collaboration with Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montanez.

He has also won numerous Cuban honors, including the 1982 Alejo Carpentier Medal and the 2005 National Music Prize, and the 2007 Haydee Santamaria Medal from the Casa de las Americas for his contributions to Latin American culture. Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés has died at the age of 79


JACLYN DIAZ is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. JACLYN DIAZ joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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