Habitually pictured complete with a Cuban cigar, Compay Segundo may have failed in his stated intention to celebrate his 100th birthday and then ask the Almighty for “an extension”, but after taking decades to become an overnight success, he got within five years of that mark, having become synonomous with the music of his homeland.
Cuban musical legend Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz aka Compay Segundo died in Havana at the age of 95. Born in Siboney, Segundo was a stalwart of the Cuban music scene but it took the intervention of Ry Cooder and his 1996 project “Buena Vista Social Club” to belatedly make him into something of a celebrity.
The album, film and overseas concerts gave Segundo and colleagues Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Eliades Ochoa an international profile, over five million album sales and several Grammy Award successes, as the ensemble became Cuba’s biggest export behind cigars and rum.
Known by his nickname since the 1940s (Compay being slang for compadre or friend and Segundo a reference to his bass harmony ‘second’ voice), he’d first played and sung the ‘son’ style of music in Santiago back in the 1920s. Working in the tobacco fields by day, he’d sing and play the “tres’ – a local guitar variant – after hours.
Later working as both a barber and cigar roller after relocating to Havana, the 1959 revolution saw him manning a hotel bar and playing locally what was a stagnant music scene. Taking a 15 year break from music until the mid 1980s, he then returned to playing and composing, with perhaps his most well-known song “Chan Chan” (track 1 on Buena Vista….) written in 1987.
A performance with Cuban group Cuarteto Patria at Washington’s Smithsonian Institute in Washington in 1989 subsequently saw him signed up as a solo artist by a Spanish record label - before the Buena Vista phenomenon. The final years of his life saw further recording sessions and record releases, before he passed away in 2003 following a kidney infection.
In a documentary filmed shortly before his passing, Segundo commented that: “This is all part of my life – Cigars, women and flowers.”
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And here’s some footage of Compay in action: