Pablo Milanés Arias was born in the Cuban town of Bayamo in 1943, the youngest of five siblings born to working-class parents.
His musical talents were manifested from an early age. At the age of six, Milanés began participating in, and often winning, singing contests on local television and radio stations, then studied at the Conservatorio Municipal de Havana.
Despite the formal training, he generally credited the bohemian musicians of his neighborhood as the inspiration for his early career.
Although he supported the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Milanés was first targeted by Fidel Castro’s government, which suppressed “alternative” culture.
The musician was allegedly harassed for wearing his hair in an Afro, and in 1965 he was sent to a forced labor camp for agriculture because of his interest in foreign music.
He finally escaped and denounced the camps. But the experiences did not dampen his fervor for revolution and he began to incorporate politics into his music.
Working with musicians such as Silvio Rodríguez and Noel Nicola, and sponsored by Castro’s government, he co-founded the nuevo trova movement – which was designed to update traditional Cuban folk music for post-revolution modern society.
In 1987, the New York Times, externalcalled Rodriguez and Milanés, who were close collaborators, “as much a symbol of Cuba and its revolution as Fidel Castro and his beard”.
“The success of Silvio and Pablo is the success of the Revolution,” Fidel Castro reportedly said at a reception honoring the artists in 1984.