February 26, 2015 / 5:34 PM / 3 years ago

Cuba's Milanes skirts politics, builds bridges with songs

LONDON (Reuters) - Pablo Milanes’s latest album is titled “Renacimiento” (Rebirth) but an air of nostalgia was in the air at the Cuban singer-songwriter’s concert in London on Wednesday night.

Cuban musician Pablo Milanes performs at a concert in Havana August 29, 2008. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

It was not just a pining for the headier days of Cuba’s revolution but embraced more universal themes of romance.

A jazzy sound brought in a variety of Cuban rhythms from son to bolero and even some Brazilian touches.

Milanes is an elder statesman of Latin American music. Along with Silvio Rodriguez, he was a leading light of Nueva Trova, the politically orientated song movement that emerged in Cuba in the 1960s after Fidel Castro took power.

He has been a supporter of the revolution but not always an uncritical one - he spent a few years in a work camp though later became a member of the Cuban National Assembly.

He has also enjoyed huge international success over the years. His most famous song, “Yolanda”, is a standard across the continent.

Milanes, who turned 72 on Tuesday, sat on a chair for his concert at London’s Barbican and relied on a thick songbook to help him with the lyrics.

His iconic Afro has given way to a bald pate but his voice was as sweet as ever, and a five-piece band that included a Latin percussionist and a clarinetist-flautist, kept things at a spritely pace.

The songs on “Renacimiento” highlight some of the more forgotten Cuban rhythms. “Homenaje a Changui” showcased a style from eastern Cuba’s Guantanamo region - and was a reminder of its rich traditions before it gained notoriety as the site of a U.S. prison camp.

He twinned two songs “Amor de Otono” (Autumn Love) and “El Otono de Amor” (The Autumn of Love) - “one a song of love, the other about when love is over”, he explained.

Inevitably though, it was the old songs that pulled the heart strings of an audience made up largely of Spaniards and Latin Americans. These songs have provided a soundtrack to times of revolution and repression, hope and sometimes disillusion.

By the time he played “Yolanda”, the crowd was singing along, arms in the air.

Milanes made no reference to politics or the changes taking place in Cuba right now. However, in an interview with Spain’s El Pais newspaper this month, he sounded pessimistic.

He described reforms in Cuba as “make-up” and said that despite the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, neither side would budge more than necessary and both were determined to achieve their own aims.

But he said he was still a revolutionary and clung to the ideas of his youth.

“Even if there have been errors I saw I had to defend the original idea and still defend it,” he told El Pais.

And his concert showed that when doors open, people have much in common to share and enjoy.

(Angus MacSwan is a senior desk editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own)

Editing by Michael Roddy and Louise Ireland

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