The Grammy-winning Cuban singer-songwriter and guitarist Pablo Milanés, known for pioneering the Nueva Trova movement and for hits such as Yolanda and Amo Esta Isla, has died of cancer in Madrid. He was 79.
One of the most internationally famous Cuban musicians, Milanés recorded dozens of albums and toured the world during a career that lasted more than five decades.
Despite being an enthusiastic advocate for Fidel Castro’s revolution, the singer was unafraid to speak his mind and latterly lamented the lack of freedom and progress on the island.
His death was announced by his agent in a statement on Tuesday.
“It’s with great pain and sadness that we regret to inform you that the maestro Pablo Milanés has died in Madrid in the early hours of 22 November,” it said. “May he rest in the peace and love he always radiated. He will remain forever in our memory.”
Cuba’s prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, offered his condolences to Milanés’s family and friends, saying: “Cuban culture is in mourning after the death of Pablo Milanés.”
At his family’s request, a wake will be held at the Casa de América cultural centre in Madrid on Wednesday. The centre described his as “an indispensable figure in Ibero-American music”, while the Gladys Palmera radio network and archive tweeted: “We’ll always love you, always remember you and always sing your songs. RIP dear Pablo Milanés.”
The artist rose to prominence following the Cuban revolution of 1959, and won renown on the island and far beyond as part of the Nueva Trova movement alongside fellow Cuban musicians Silvio Rodríguez and Noel Nicola.
Nueva Trova, which emerged in the 1960s, was smiled upon by Castro’s government for lyrics that gave voice to its stated political and social imperatives, including the battles against sexism, colonialism and racism.
In 1970, Milanés wrote the seminal Latin American love song Yolanda, an enduring favourite everywhere from Old Havana’s tourist cafes to Mexico City’s cantinas.
In 2003, the Spanish newspaper El País asked Milanés how many women he had flirted with by telling them the song was about them. “None,” he said, laughing. “But many have told me: ‘My child is the product of Yolanda.’”
The singer joined other prominent artists and intellectuals in voicing their support for the Cuban government when Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006. But four years later, he backed a dissident hunger striker who was demanding the release of political prisoners.
Milanés told the Spanish daily El Mundo that Cuba’s ageing leaders were “stuck in time”, adding: “History should advance with new ideas and new men.”
In 2011, as the island was enacting economic changes that would allow greater free-market activity, he lobbied for President Raúl Castro to do more.
“These freedoms have been seen in small doses, and we hope that with time they will grow,” Milanés told the Associated Press.
In June, the singer, who had lived in the Spanish capital since 2017, made one last visit to Havana, where he gave an emotional concert before about 10,000 fans.
Milanés won two Latin Grammys in 2006, best singer-songwriter album for Como un Campo de Maíz (Like a Cornfield) and best traditional tropical album for AM/PM, Líneas Paralelas (AM/PM, Parallel lines), a collaboration with the Puerto Rican salsa singer Andy Montañez.
He also won numerous Cuban honours including the Alejo Carpentier medal in 1982 and the national music prize in 2005.