Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes’ most famous composition is not one of his many revolutionary ballads, but a love song, Yolanda. When he sang it from the stage of the AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night, this pean of undying adoration and need in the face of pain and betrayal became a shared duet with the audience. “I love you,” they serenaded each other, “I love you eternally.”
The politics inside the first Miami concert by one of the artists most associated with Cuba’s 1959 revolution were personal, marked by an emotional sense of reunion and relief. There was no such catharsis outside, as approximately 200 demonstrators arrayed on the west side of Biscayne Boulevard across from the arena shouted and shook their fists at concert-goers filing past.
“We are protesting against a government and its representatives who have committed atrocities,” Cuban-American Miguel Inda, 31, told El Nuevo Herald. “We won’t let them disrespect us.”
Milanes has long been closely associated with the island’s revolution. In recent years, however, he has criticized the Cuban government for its treatment of dissidents and reluctance to change.
Concert-goers Zelmar Mendives and Lester Pino, both 32 and from Cuba, shrugged off the demonstration.
“It makes me think how good it is to live in a democracy,” said Pino. His friend Mendives said he was simply eager to hear Milanes sing. “I love the songs,” he said. “It’s about Cuba, it’s about love.”
Milanes seemed to have reconciliation on his mind. “In this brief journey, let’s sing, let’s remember,” the 68-year old artist said as he entered. “We’re going to spend a wonderful night together.”
Many of the songs from his nearly two hour show dealt with regret, longing, and questioning long-held values. If the subject of compositions such as El breve espacio en que tu no estas (The brief space where you are not), Amame como soy (Love me as I am), or Ya ves que yo sigo pensando en ti (You see that I keep thinking of you) was personal, in this context they took on a broader meaning.
When Milanes sang “No one could take her place… if she stops loving me,” in “If she fails me sometime” he seemed to be singing to the audience of 3,500. For many, Milanes’ songs had been part of the soundtrack to their life in Cuba, and they sang along fervently and happily.
Other songs were clearly targeted to the Miami audience. “This is in homage to you,” he said to introduce Exodo, written for those who had left the island, whose pleading lyrics ask “Where are the friends I had yesterday? What happened?”
Milanes performed seated on a platform at the front of the stage, with six terrifically skilled musicians, on synthesizer and violin, keyboard, bass, drums, percussion, flute and other wind instruments, in a semi-circle behind him. The melodies to Milanes’ songs are often very similar, and the smooth orchestral style arrangements can be slick and swoonily muzak-like.
But his rich, resonant baritone remains powerfully expressive, and the often ambivalent, layered poetry of his lyrics even more so. In the final moments of the encore, as Milanes sang “I don’t ask that you love me, I only ask that you fill my space with your light,” a man came from backstage to drape a Cuban flag across Milanes’ shoulders.
More of those same flags were waved by the audience, and by the demonstrators outside. An ardently felt symbol for all of them, in so many different ways.