Compay Segundo

Buena Vista Social Club musician
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The Independent Online

Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz (Compay Segundo), singer, guitarist and armónico player: born Siboney, Cuba 18 November 1907; married (two sons); died Havana 13 July 2003.

Compay Segundo was, at 89, the most senior of the clutch of great Cuban musicians propelled into the international spotlight by the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. An influential songwriter within his country's son tradition, he wrote countless boleros and guarachas, and penned a number now indelibly associated with the Social Club, "Chan Chan".

A fine guitarist and an innovative musician, he developed the armónico, a small, seven-string Spanish guitar/Cuban tres hybrid on which the third (G) string is double-strung to achieve a more harmonic sound. The sobriquet by which he is known was gained through his role as Cuban music's most important "second voice": "Compay" is Cuban slang for compadre (friend), and "Segundo" refers to the fine bass harmonies that supported the lead of Lorenzo Hierrezuelo in the duo Los Compadres. "Second voices," he later explained,

are natural, free, without defined movements. The second voice par excellence in Cuba was the remarkable trova [ballad] singer Sindo Garay, and he was beyond comparison.

He was born Francisco Repilado, the grandson of a freed slave who reputedly lived to the age of 115, in eastern Cuba in 1907. In 1916 the family moved from its home in the mining town of Siboney to Santiago where exposure to the area's musical traditions included regular visits by Garay, a family friend. He learned to play the clarinet and as a teen appeared on local radio with the Cubanacán Quartet. "They were," he once said,

very romantic times. We tipped our hats to the young women, and if you liked one of them you would toss your hat on the ground. If she liked you too, she would

 

step on part of the hat, just the brim. But if she didn't like you, she'd step all over the hat, demolish it.

A stint in the Cuba Stars Quintet followed, as did appearances with Nico Saquito, before he joined the Huatey Quartet, with whom he toured Mexico for six months and even starred in a couple of popular movies: Tierra Brava and México Lindo (both 1938). In 1939 he joined El Conjunto Matamoros, playing clarinet under the leadership of Miguel Matamoros. He maintained an association with the group on an on-off basis for a dozen years and befriended the man whom many still regard as the greatest of all Cuban singers, Beny Moré.

In 1949 he formed Duo Los Compadres with Hierrezuelo, a cousin and fellow native of Siboney. A disc jockey bestowed upon Hierrezuelo the name "Compay Primo" (first friend) and upon Ripaldo, "Compay Segundo", and over the next few years they cut a series of historic recordings for the Panart label including "Macusa", "Los Barrios de Santiago", "Yo Canto en el Llano" and "Saradonga".

The Compadres went their separate ways in 1955 and Segundo created a group that would continue to perform under his leadership for nearly half a century, Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos. Early lead vocalists with the Muchachos included Carlos Embale and Pio Leyva; a March 1957 session featuring Leyva having temporarily to be suspended when the gunfire of revolutionary forces attacking the presidential palace could clearly be heard nearby.

The decades that followed saw Segundo's musical career increasingly sidelined and, although he continued to perform, he was forced to make his living as a cigar roller. In 1989, however, a musicologist named Danilo Orozco took him to Washington DC, where he performed at the Smithsonian Institute and was enthusiastically received. In 1994 he began a series of European tours, proving especially popular in Spain where he developed a close musical relationship with several major stars of flamenco, including Matirio, Tomatito and Raimundo Amador.

In 1996 Segundo was among the group of veteran musicians, including Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa, gathered together by Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez at Havana's Egrem Studios to record the album Buena Vista Social Club. Fusing Cooder's slide-guitar work with virtuoso performances from its Cuban stars, it introduced the traditions of son, trova and danzón to the wider world and, in addition to becoming an international best-seller, went on to win a Grammy. That same year he received his country's most prestigious cultural award, the Orden Felix Varela.

When Cooder returned to Cuba in 1998 to record an album highlighting the vocal talents of Ibrahim Ferrer, he was accompanied by the film-maker Wim Wenders, who recorded both the sessions and a series of interviews for the Oscar-nominated documentary Buena Vista Social Club (1999). If Ferrer is the undoubted star of that movie, Segundo, invariably brandishing one of his beloved cigars, nevertheless proved a charming, dapper presence and a gifted raconteur.

His work on the Buena Vista Social Club projects gave new impetus to Segundo's career. In addition to touring he released, in 1998, the album Lo Mejor de la Vida (The Best in Life), following it successively with Calle Salud (Salud Street, 1999), on which he was joined by his sons Basilio and Salvador, and then Las Flores de la Vida (Flowers of Life, 2001).

In 2000, when asked about the future, the nonagenarian performer replied:

I don't sit in the corner waiting for death: death has to pursue me. I'm going strong. I hope to reach 100 and ask for an extension, just like my grandmother did.

Paul Wadey

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