Pablo Milanes

Pablo Milanés at AmericanAirlines Arena, August 28

American Airlines Arena
August 28, 2011

(Definitely) Better than: the tiny protest outside.

There'd been so much raging hysteria and controversy swirling through Spanish-language talk radio and TV news in the days before Cuban cantautor Pablo Milanés's concert, that I was genuinely freaked out. At first I was all like, ugh, whatever, here we go again with the bulldozers and the crushed CDs and the little groups of rabidly mad older people stalking Versailles and yelling at cameras. It was all reminiscent of hard-line exiles responding to Los Van Van and Los Aldeanos concerts in Miami or Juanes in Cuba. 

But it became apparent, watching the protests unfold on TV, that this was different: There were hammers and giant blow-up dolls of Fidel. There were fuzzy pictures of political prisoners and dudes rocking straw hats and army gear looking like straight-up mambises getting all up in camera people's faces. These protesters were intense with their pre-protesting. This was Pablo-freakin'-Milanes, a stalwart revolutionary who made a career penning folk love songs to socialism, the so-called Bob Dylan of Latin America (along with Silvio Rodriguez). 

And then came the day of the actual concert and the actual protest. A couple of barricades across the street from AmericanAirlines Arena separated concert-goers from demonstrators: all couple-dozen of them. Seriously, all that media coverage was over 30 or so people who filled up half a sidewalk.

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    Granted, they were loud as hell. I got called all sorts of names along the lines of descarada and prostitute (I think? Or was that aimed at the dude in front of me?) as I walked in front of the dissenters to get into the arena. The protesters got intensely personal, not just expounding against the concert, but hurling insults at individuals. 
    But the real story was inside, where the crowd was thousands deep. Before the concert, I'd wondered who would show up. Hugo Cancio, promoter of the concert, defended the concert in a Miami Herald interview, saying that "Milanés not only comes to Miami to sing to his fellow Cubans, but also to hundreds of thousands of followers from Latin America... " So I figured it'd be a crowd of mainly left-leaning South Americans. Maybe a few Cubans from younger generations who grew up on Nueva Trova music. 

    But no, this audience was pure Cubaneria: young people, middle-aged couples, first-wave exiles, recién llegados, fancy people in stilettos, not-so-fancy people in chancletas, dudes in head-to-toe Cuban baseball outfits, ladies dressed in white. So many people inside looked exactly like the protesters outside, Cuban flags and all. 

    I think even Pablo Milanés was surprised. He sat in a chair, as is the style of cantautores, lilting into the mic, surrounded by a six-person band. At times, he would simply stop in the middle of a song to smile, gazing at the audience as they sang the words. "This is unforgettable for me," he said in Spanish at one point. 

    The air was thick with nostalgia: standing ovations, hands in the air, dancing in the aisles, tears, hugs, Cuban flags unfurled, more tears and hugs. Strangers reminisced with each other. Couples made out. And in between songs there were shouts from the audience: "Viva Pablo! Viva Cuba!" Even the stone-faced reporters who surrounded me got caught in the moment and were spotted out of their chairs, hands raised.  

    The defining moment came when Pablo Milanés announced the song "Éxodo," a song that references artists like Thomas Sanchez who left Cuba for Miami and speaks of the pain of separation from friends who have emigrated throughout the years. "This is dedicated to all the Cubans inside and outside of the island," he said in Spanish. "It's a bridge of love, an homage to you." Flags everywhere. More tears and shouts. 

    I can't even be snarky about it: It really felt like watching the barriers fall down, sitting on a "bridge of love," and all that. It was pure cheesy gushiness, pure good vibes, pure let's-all-get-together-and-fuck-this-separation-between-Cuba-and-Miami-type stuff. Somebody actually flashed me a peace sign. 

    The concert ended with a dude from the audience walking onto the stage and placing a Cuban flag around Pablo Milanes's shoulders while the singer lowered his head and held his arms out to the audience. It was like Woodstock with far more bling and perfume and hand motions. 

    Maybe tomorrow the on-air bickering will continue, the rabid fights will break out at coffee counters all over the city, and politicians will announce a new series of policy sanctions to turn back the clock, halt cultural exchange, and nab the 80-to-90-year-old vote. But on this one night, it actually felt like Miami could rise above politics and just chill out with some crazy good music. 

    Partial Setlist:
    -"Cuànto Gané, Cuànto Perdí"
    -"El Primer Amor"
    - "Mírame Bien"
    - "Ámame Como Soy"
    -"Comienzo Y Final De Una Verde Mañana"
    -"Para Vivir"
    -"Los Años Pasan"

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