Although Cuban balladeer Pablo Milanes is a cult figure in Latin America, his name most often inspires this question among North Americans: "Pablo who?"
He is not famous here like the Cuban soneros from the Buena Vista Social Club or the rumba queen Celia Cruz. Nor are his melodies as commonly known as those of mambo king Perez Prado.
The 58-year-old singer-songwriter has basically been off the radar screen for American audiences. Radio stations in the area rarely play his music and only a handful of his CDs can be found in record stores. So his visit to the Conga Room on Thursday, his first time in Los Angeles, is a somewhat historic occasion.
He is a beloved figure worldwide. Whether it's wide-eyed 20-somethings or aging hippies, Milanes can count on sold-out auditoriums throughout Latin America, France, Italy and Spain.
His popularity comes not only because of his compositions, but also for his moving lyrics about passion, unrequited love and emotion. His tender voice has serenaded countless fans the world over for the past 30 years.
In a sense Milanes is like Bob Dylan creating the archetypal love song with "If You See Her, Say Hello" from his "Blood on the Tracks" album. In the song, Dylan describes the feeling of wishing your lover well after the relationship has ended, awash in heartbreak but still trying to maintain some dignity and honor through it all. Milanes has explored similar themes, which, especially early in his career, was a rarity in a culture plagued by machismo.
He has also served as an important composer of political songs, making him an iconic figure among leftists in Latin America and Europe. Many young radicals, angered by the United States' interventionist policies in Latin America, have come to regard him as the spokesman for anti-imperialism.
Needless to say, his staunch support of Fidel Castro's regime has made him a pariah among the exiled Cuban community that claims he is only a propagandist. Despite these political land mines, his music perseveres because of his talent.
Milanes is a seminal figure of the Cuban nueva-trova, a musical movement that began in the late 1960s and arguably still survives as nueva cancion, with singers such as Carlos Varela. His repertoire is vast and varied. He is just as fluent composing a son guajiro, revealing the soul of the Cuban countryside, as he is singing a bolero, commonly heard in Latin America's major cities. When you hear his music, you know he is Cuban, yet somehow his music resonates just as powerfully among Mexicans, Argentines and Chileans.
Milanes' path to becoming a famous songwriter began inauspiciously. Born in 1943, in Bayamo, Cuba, he began singing at a local radio station at a very early age. By the time the family moved to Havana in 1949, Cuba was enjoying a true musical golden age. Beny More, Rita Montaner, Abelardo Valdes, Barbarito Diez, Miguelito Cuni and Vicentico Valdes were teaching the world how to do the Cuban rumba and sing the son in famous nightclubs like the Tropicana.
During that time, in another part of Havana, new composers such as Jose Antonio Mendez and Cesar Portillo de la Luz were creating a new type of American-influenced sound. They called it the "filin," a Cuban way to pronounce "feeling." Filin reflected the influence of jazz, African American spirituals and the songs of American performers such as Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Mathis. Filin also incorporated musical ideas from such French and Mexican composers as Michel Legrand, Gonzalo Curiel and Vicente Garrido. The movement was enormously influential for Milanes.
"The first time I heard the filin live it was a tremendous shock," Milanes has said. "I heard how they used the same type of harmony I was hearing in American music of the time except that this was in Spanish with a Cuban accent. That convinced me that filin was a complete movement."
But politics would soon affect Milanes' artistic life. With Castro's victory in 1959, Cuban society soon began a radical transformation that also had an impact on its music. Around this time, Milanes was singing black spirituals in a group called Cuarteto del Rey. He was occasionally performing as a soloist in bars and nightclubs, alternating with bigger acts such as Omara Portuondo and Elena Burke.
Although many in Cuban society began to feel their liberty tightening and the revolutionary ideology seeping into everyday life, Milanes was not initially affected by the changes. He and other young musicians would continue to gather at night to jam in the park adjacent to Havana's famous Malecon.
By 1965, Milanes composed "Mis 22 Anos" (My 22 Years), the first song that bears his distinct mark. Here he brings in elements of filin with a son guajiro that pays homage to his Cuban roots.