With his ubiquitous cigar carefully poised between muscular fingers, or stemming from his gap-toothed smile – the smoke wafting wistfully from his mouth, ever upward like a halo – the “daddy of musicians in Cuba” Compay Segundo was a living legend, one whose gravitas grew stronger after his untimely death in 2003 from a kidney infection.
It might seem odd to call the death of a 96-year-old man untimely, but not so strange for someone who vowed, “Death has to pursue me. I am going strong. I hope to reach 100 and ask for an extension, just like my grandmother did.” That extension would have seen him reach 115-years-old, and only the grave could have stopped his singing.
Born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz on November 18, 1907, in the small seaside town of Siboney, Compay Segundo – so-called because of the clipped way of saying “compadre” from his home town and his famous position as the second voice in the group Los Compradores – began his musical career with the Municipal Band of Santiago de Cuba in the country’s second city, where his family moved when he was nine.
A Musical Guide
Starting with the clarinet, the musician learned to play the guitar and the tres, a Cuban three-course, six-string chordophone, and he invented the armónico, a seven-string hybrid of the Cuban tres and the Spanish guitar to close the harmonic gap between the two instruments. By doing this, Segundo altered the traditional son and created a variation called “Coge el paso” (Take the step) that is inextricably linked to him.
But it wasn’t until he moved to Havana and formed Trio Cuba with his friends Joaquín García and Evelio Machín that he actually found true success. First with recording his first album for RCA Victor in the 1930s, then when he formed the duo Los Compadres with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo. To this day the duo’s work is considered a cornerstone of any collection of Cuban music.
Later, in the 1950s, Segundo decided to become “primero” and started Compay Segundo y sus muchachos, which found success, particularly in the Dominican Republic where aficionados of son and trova begged the group to stay.
Segundo’s smoky speaking and singing voice enraptured audiences, as when he performed to a full house at the Olympia in Paris, for Fidel Castro in Havana and before Pope Paul II in Vatican City. “I’ve done a lot of things away from my homeland,” Segundo once said, but his entire being was firmly rooted in Cuba. During his lifetime Segundo was the embodiment of traditional Cuban music and was stalwart in his defense of clean orchestrations, poetic lyricism and the purity of the son, a musical genre that developed from an earlier style called changüí in the province of Oriente at the close of the 19th century.
Similar to the advent of tango in Argentina, sones were a meeting of African rhythms and Iberian culture, which first found an audience amongst the working classes of both races. Over time, sones were refined and the first son band Cuarteto Oriental was formed in 1916 by the Martínez brothers, who introduced the combined sounds of the claves, botija, tres and maracas that was embraced by mainstream audiences. Later on bongos would be added by other musicians and son enjoyed popularity through 1920s until it fell out of favor with the Jazz and big band invasion of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Yet traditionalists, especially in the smaller towns, continued to listen to son which eventually gave birth to salsa, among other styles.
(For a fuller understanding of Segundo, the musical experience speaks for itself in the classic Chan Chan)
Thanks to a “little” recording and the subsequent film titled Buena Vista Social Club, Segundo’s exuberant voice and masterful guitar playing is firmly embedded into the collective consciousness of untold numbers of fans. His most famous song, Chan Chan, is the opening track on the recording and is immediately recognizable from the first notes. Although this recording catapulted the then 90-year-old musician to international icon status, another of his most famous pieces is his cover of Cuba’s unofficial anthem Guantanamera, which is changed-up a bit with Segundo’s own lyrics and infused with the unmistakable son sound.
Over the decades Segundo received several awards such as the Cuarteto Patria at the Festival de Culturas Tradicionales Americanas, organized by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1989, and the Primer Encuentro del Son y el Flamenco in Seville in 1993, and the 1998 Grammy Award for his participation in the Buena Vista Social Club, among many other awards and honors, including being named a distinguished citizen of many South American and European cities.
His energy never waned, which he attributed to a diet of lamb broth and a drink of aged rum, and his philosophy that “as long as your heart beats, you are never too old.” His recording legacy includes Antología, Yo Vengo Aquí, Calle Salud, Lo Mejor de la Vida and Las Flores de La Vida — all essentials for music lovers.
Even though most of the world had not heard of Compay Segundo before the success that came with Buena Vista Social Club, the musician had been creating music and recording in Cuba for most of his life. But he never let the sudden global fame taint him or interfere with his passion for music, maintaining, “Young people don’t want to be second to anyone. Everyone wants to be an overnight star. Look how many years I had to wait, how many roads I had to travel, how many songs I had to sing. And now I’m just beginning, never ending.” And the journey continues as Segundo’s international fan base grows ever wider, just like his smoke and his smile.