Fidel Castro’s revolution brought a new musical style to Cuba, nueva trova – not dance music, for which the country had become rightly famous, but the work of singer-songwriters. The new form of the music had strong links with the leftwing nueva canción (new song) movement in Chile and Argentina, and placed an emphasis on poetic lyrics – though the subject matter did not deal only with politics and protest, but could include love songs and reflections on life in the new revolutionary society.
Pablo Milanés, who has died in Madrid aged 79, was one of the great composers of nueva trova. A Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist, he toured the world as musical ambassador for the new Cuba, often alongside the style’s other major star, Silvio Rodríguez. Jan Fairley, a specialist in Cuban music, described the hallmark of their songs as being “a sense of metaphysical emotion of joy and loss, an existential questioning, particularly of the vicissitudes of personal relationships ... They are part of a generation which redefined the subject matter of Cuban song.”
Milanés, who became known to his followers as Pablito, acquired the status of a national poet, with his work known and loved across the Spanish-speaking world. Even towards the end of his career, when he was a bespectacled, avuncular figure who remained seated as he sang, he retained his relaxed, intimate style. With just the slightest wave of his hand he would encourage an audience to join in with hit songs.
Following Milanés’ death, the Cuban prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, said that “Cuban culture is in mourning” – but the authorities had been less keen on him in the early days of the revolution, when they disapproved of his haircut and interest in foreign musical styles.
In 1965 Milanés was sent on “special military service”, which meant that he was held in a forced labour camp, where those regarded as bohemians were made to cut sugar cane. He escaped and fled to Havana, where he was jailed for “insubordination”, finally gaining his freedom in 1967.
The experience failed to dampen his belief in the revolution, and he took note of Castro’s maxim “within the revolution, everything, outside the revolution, nothing”.
After his release he became part of the Grupo de Experimentación of young musicians, including Rodríguez and Noel Nicola, who co-founded the nueva trova movement, which would become the revolution’s unofficial musical style.
His 1973 album Versos Sencillos de José Martí perfectly fitted the agenda. This was a concept album, a series of new settings for the poems of José Martí, who had died as a martyr in 1895 during the independence struggle against Spain. An eponymous album of original songs was released three years later, and Milanés went on to release more than 50 albums in a career lasting over five decades.
His best-loved songs included Yo Me Quedo (I’ll Stay) and Amo Esta Isla (I Love This Island), both from 1982. He won several awards in Cuba, and two Latin Grammys in 2006 for the albums Como un Campo de Maiz (Like a Cornfield) and AM/PM, Lineas Paralelas (AM/PM, Parallel Lines), a collaboration with the Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montañez.
Born in the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo, Pablo was the son of Angel Milanés, a leather worker, and his wife, Conchita Arias, a dressmaker. The family moved to Havana in 1950, where he studied at the music at the Municipal Conservatory of Havana, but was greatly influenced by street musicians he heard playing traditional songs. He gave his first public performance in 1956.
He became known as an exponent of filin (feeling), a romantic song style influenced by US jazz styles, that had become popular in the 40s but would lose favour after the revolution.
In the early 60s he played in different bands, including Cuarteto del Rey, and wrote his first love song, Tú Mi Desengaño (You, My Disillusion), in 1963. Two years later he recorded the pained Mis 22 Años (My 22 Years), now seen as a precursor of nueva trova.
Milanés described himself 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.”
He had been on friendly terms with Castro, had a granddaughter in common with Che Guevara, and voiced his support for the new government of Raúl Castro when he took over in 2006. But in his later life he would speak out when he disagreed with Cuban government policy, and called for greater freedom in the country.
Along with his solo work and recordings with Rodríguez, his collaborations included albums with the Cuban pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdés (on Más Allá de Todo, 2009), with two of his own daughters, Lynn (on Pablo Y Lynn en Concierto, 2011) and Haydée (on Amor, 2017).
He was married five times. His fifth wife, Nancy Pérez, whom he married in 2004, was a Spanish historian, and he spent many years living in Vigo, Spain. In 2014, Nancy donated a kidney when Milanés was suffering from kidney failure, and in 2017 they moved to Madrid so he could receive specialist cancer care. He returned to Cuba in June this year to give a final, emotional concert in Havana.
He is survived by Nancy, and by eight of his nine children, Rosa, Pablo, Lynn, Liam, Mauricio, Fabien, Haydée and Antonio. Another daughter, Suylén, died in January this year.
• Pablo Milanés, singer-songwriter, born 24 February 1943; died 22 November 2022