Born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz on November 18, 1907, in Siboney, Cuba; died on July 13, 2003, in Havana, Cuba; married; five children.
Compay Segundo was the oldest of the acclaimed Cuban musicians who recorded the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club and starred in the 1999 film of the same name. A living legend in Cuba since the early 1930s, Segundo's talents as a singer, songwriter, and musician reached a wide international audience thanks to American musician Ry Cooder, who produced the Buena Vista album. A few months before Segundo's death in Havana in 2003, his musician sons dismissed the customary press angle surrounding the Buena Vista Social Club success. Their father, Basilio Repilado told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Vanessa Bauza, was "not like (vocalist) Ibrahim Ferrer who was shining shoes when Ry Cooder found him or like (pianist) Ruben González [whose] hands were arthritic. When Ry Cooder came, Compay was a recognized artist with a band."
Segundo was born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz on November 18, 1907, in Siboney, in the eastern part of Cuba. His father, of Andalusian heritage, drove a train in the region's mines, and his mother was Afro-Cuban. Segundo's grandmother, Ma Regina, was a freed slave who lived to be 115. She died when he was nine years old, but his first job was to light her cigars, which gave him a taste for the classic Cuban smoke at an early age. His family members were ardent fans of traditional Cuban music, and a venerable troubadour, Sindo Garay, sometimes stopped by their house.
Segundo and his family moved to Santiago in 1916, which was the center of Cuban music at the time. The oldest city on the island, dating from 1514, it was famed throughout Latin America for its unique musical traditions, which mixed Cuban music, West African influences (from the island's once-immense slave population), and traditional Spanish folk songs. While working in a cigar factory as a roller in his teens, Segundo began to pursue music as a sideline. He played the clarinet and wrote songs, many of which were lovelorn laments for the women he pursued. With his cousin Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, the pair performed around Santiago in a combo that played trova (troubadour) music, characterized by a guitar, hand percussion instruments, and vocal harmonies.Trova had given way to son by the 1930s, a genre considered Cuba's first indigenous musical idiom. Its question-and-answer lyrics were a legacy of the call-and-response chants from West African ceremonial songs.
Segundo moved to Havana around 1934, where he and Hierrezuelo joined a band led by the well-known Evelio Machín. The Cuarteto Hatuey (Hatuey Quartet) gained a following, and even traveled to Mexico for a tour, where the group cut a few records and appeared in films, boosting their popularity across Latin America. By now Segundo had fashioned his own guitar, which he called an armónico. It was similar to the standard Cuban trilina or three-stringed instrument, but he added a G-string to give it a richer range.
By this time Havana had become an international hotspot whose nightclubs and casinos provided steady work in a glamorous setting. In addition to his work with the cuarteto, Segundo also played clarinet for Conjunto Matamoros, a band led by one of the top son stars of the time, Miguel Matamoros, whom he had known since childhood.
Reuniting with Hierrezuelo in 1942 as Duo Compadres, Segundo took up the stage name "Compay Segundo" around this time, which means "second compadre" in stage parlance. The two released records and had radio hits with songs that include "Huellas del pasado," "Macusa," and "Vicenta." "In our songs we addressed the simple things that the others didn't speak of," the Daily Telegraph obituary quoted Segundo as saying. "People liked the poetry of our music. We didn't make a noise."
Compay and Hierrezuelo had a falling out around 1955, and in 1957 Segundo formed his own band, Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos. After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, however, life in Cuba changed drastically, and the country became an international pariah that had little contact with the rest of the world. Cut off from other influences, the son and other traditional musical styles remained relatively unchanged over the next four decades.
Rumored to Have Died
During the 1960s, Segundo still worked as a cigar roller at the H. Upmann factory, and his band played in Havana hotel bars for a few years before he called it quits. Those who knew of his work even thought that he had already passed away. Segundo later dismissed ideas that this was a low period for him as a musician: "I would work in the factory, and when the musicians needed me they would telephone me," the Daily Telegraph article quoted him. "This allowed me to pursue the two activities at the same time without any problem. For me the cigar is just as important and indispensable as my life."
Segundo retired from the factory in 1972, but it was not until the late 1980s that he became actively involved in music again. At the invitation of well known Santiago guitarist Eliades Ochoa, he joined the Cuarteto Patria, which played traditional Cuban music. The group went to Washington, D.C., in 1989 to take part in a concert at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1994 Segundo traveled to Spain to play at a festival in Seville, and then was booked for a few nights at a tiny Madrid club. There, executives from East-West Records came to see him, and enthusiastically signed him to a contract. The label issued Antología, a double-CD of classic son in 1995.
The following year American musician Ry Cooder went to Havana to find prerevolution-era Cuban legends. Segundo's was the only name that Cooder knew, and he sought him out first. "We needed him because when we got there we didn't quite know what to do," Cooder told Guardian writer Nigel Williamson. "We needed a centerpiece to build around and so you have to go for the oldest person you can find who is still doing it." Segundo was almost 90 at the time, but in excellent health and musical form.
"He Was Totally Charismatic"
Cooder found other musicians, and gathered them for a recording session at a Havana studio where Nat "King" Cole and Cab Calloway had once worked--it still had the same recording equipment from the late 1950s. The resulting album was Buena Vista Social Club reunion LP, named after a thriving musicians' club in Havana to which many of the contributing musicians had belonged in the pre-1959 era. The record was released in 1997 and became an international sensation; more than a million copies were sold in the United States alone. Segundo's "Chan Chan" became the signature song for what Maclean's writer Nicholas Jennings called "an album of exceptional grace and artistry." It even won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Tropical Latin Album. As Cooder explained to the Guardian's Williamson, Segundo was "the fulcrum. The pivot around which we worked. And when Compay isn't there, it somehow sounds more sterile. It wasn't his voice or his songs, it was just him. His presence. He had a personal magnetism and he was totally charismatic."
The film version of the Buena Vista Social Club created even more fans for Segundo and his fellow musicians. It was directed by acclaimed German-born filmmaker Wim Wenders, an occasional collaborator of Cooder's. The documentary captured Segundo's lively energy and compelling stage performances. When not performing he usually had a cigar in his hand and his trademark cream-colored Panama hat on his head. Wenders, however, noted that the 92-year-old was not the heavy smoker he appeared to be. "Compay, he looks like he's smoking all the time, but he lights it in the morning and he still has the same cigar in the evening," the filmmaker told San Francisco Chronicle writer James Sullivan.
The film also followed Segundo and his compadres on a tour that took them to Amsterdam, New York, London, and Tokyo. Segundo's career enjoyed a tremendous boost. "It was like a bomb," Segundo was quoted in his Daily Telegraph obituary. "We jumped from the mountains to fame, we travelled half the world, we went on illustrious stages, and princes invited us to grand parties." Back home, he was a frequent act at Havana's Hotel Nacional. He continued to release solo works, including Lo Mejor de la Vida in 1998, and Calle Salud in 1999. The latter featured a section of reed musicians as well as Segundo's duet with French crooner Charles Aznavour, "Morir de amor." A review from Down Beat's Aaron Cohen noted that despite the guest performers, "the emphasis here is always on Compay's unmistakable voice and dexterity on the seven-string armónico.... Even familiar songs are given a new twist as the anthemic 'Chan Chan' is delivered in a seductively slow tempo."
In 2000 Segundo made an American tour and even performed before Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and Castro back home. His last studio album was Las Flores de la Vida, released in 2001. It included several of his standards, but Los Angeles Times, writer Ernesto Lechner asserted that he and his band delivered "'Bilongo,' 'Longina' and 'Guantanamera' with an exuberance that makes you forget you've heard these standards a thousand times before."
Segundo, who suffered from kidney problems in his later years, died at age 95 at his home in Havana's Miramar neighborhood on July 13, 2003. He had often said he hoped to live to be at least 100 years old, and attributed his longevity to his genes, passion for life, and the occasional dish of lamb soup. "You shouldn't have too much of good things, so you'll always have a desire for more and you won't get bored," the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying. "I don't sit in the corner waiting for death: death has to pursue me. I hope to reach 100 and ask for an extension."
by Carol Brennan
Compay Segundo's Career
Began playing in a combo with cousin Lorenzo Hierrezuelo in Santiago, Cuba, early 1930s; became a member of the Cuarteto Hatuey, c. 1934; toured Mexico and appeared in films; played with Havana's Conjunto Matamoros, early 1940s; formed Duo Compadres with Hierrezuelo, 1942 (disbanded 1955); formed Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos, 1957; worked as a guest musician in the 1960s and 1970s; joined Eliades Ochoa's Cuarteto Patria, late 1980s; released Antología on East/West label, 1995; appeared on the Buena Vista Social Club LP, 1997, and in the film of the same name, 1999; continued releasing albums until his death, 2003.
Compay Segundo's Awards
Grammy Award (with Buena Vista Social Club), Best Tropical Latin Album, 1998.
- Selected discography
- Antología East/West, 1995.
- Buena Vista Social Club World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1997.
- Balcón de Santiago: 1956-1957 Tumbao, 1998.
- Lo Mejor de la Vida Nonesuch/World Circuit, 1998.
- Son del Monte Egrem, 1998.
- Huellas del Pasado Blue Moon, 1999.
- Calle Salud Nonesuch, 1999.
- Feliz Cumpleaños a Compay Segundo Evaston, 2000.
- Los Compadres Egrem, 2000.
- La Trova Cubana Orfeon, 2001.
- Las Flores de la Vida Nonesuch, 2001.
- Que Lio Compay Andres Orfeon, 2001.
- Yo Vengo Aquí Warner Music, 2001.
- Duets WEA, 2002.
- Yo Soy del Monte Sono Logic, 2002.
- Adiós a la Leyenda Orfeon, 2003.
- Boston Herald, November 19, 1999, p. S25.
- Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 15, 2003.
- Down Beat, April 2000, p. 68.
- Guardian (London, England), July 16, 2003, p. 23; July 17, 2003, p. 6.
- Houston Chronicle, June 13, 1999, p. 11.
- Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 20, 2002.
- Los Angeles Times, February 17, 2001, p. F12.
- Maclean's, October 13, 1997, p. 77.
- New York Times, July 15, 2003, p. B8.
- Observer (London, England), August 15, 1999, p. 10.
- San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1999, p. B1.
- Times (London, England), May 8, 1998, p. 38.
- Variety, September 11, 2000, p. 31.
- World and I, January 2002, p. 182.
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