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Compay Segundo, 95; Cuban Musician Was Rediscovered With 'Buena Vista Social Club'

July 15, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Compay Segundo, the avuncular Cuban vocalist who was plucked from obscurity to become a nonagenarian recording star with the "Buena Vista Social Club," died Sunday night in Havana. He was 95 and the cause of death was kidney failure.

Symbolizing Segundo's late-blooming status as senior ambassador of Cuban culture, a large floral bouquet sent by Cuban President Fidel Castro stood next to his casket during a viewing at a Havana funeral home Monday, wire services reported.

The musician's body was scheduled to be taken today for burial in Santiago, the provincial capital where his career was launched not long after the Cuban republic itself.

Segundo's life spanned the century in which Cuban popular music went from its simple country roots around his boyhood home on the eastern end of the island to a sophisticated urban genre that seduced audiences worldwide.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Compay Segundo -- The obituary of Cuban vocalist Compay Segundo in the July 15 California section stated that the "Buena Vista Social Club" producers were Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and Ry Cooder. In terms of the recording, Cooder is the credited producer and De Marcos Gonzalez is credited as A&R consultant. In the documentary film "Buena Vista Social Club," Cooder is also listed as the producer and De Marcos Gonzalez is listed as the A&R consultant.

In his twilight years, the jaunty character with the rakish hat, perennial cigar and mischievous smile had come to personify not just a nostalgic style of music but Cuba itself.

"Symbolically, he represented our culture to the entire world," said singer Omara Portuondo, a Buena Vista colleague who stood alongside Segundo's casket, which was draped in flowers and the deceased singer's famous hat. "I would say that he is part of the Cuban flag."

Such acclaim led inevitably to exaggerated assessments of Segundo's place in Cuban music history. "Some people say I am the music," Segundo told the Chicago Tribune in 2001.

Perhaps he passed on the outlandish praise with a mischievous twinkle, befitting his renowned sense of humor. Even the dapper songwriter, not known for his modesty, must have realized his recently gained stature was more folklore than actual accomplishment.

If it had not been for the "Buena Vista" record and documentary, "he would be a respected and beloved minor figure," Ned Sublette, a Cuban music historian and record producer, said Monday. "He didn't do anything spectacular, but what was so remarkable was that behind every single gesture he made there was a century of knowledge."

Segundo, whose real name was Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz, was born in Siboney, a town near Santiago. The region is the cradle of the Cuban son, sweet and gently rhythmic country dance music that is considered the source of more modern, urban styles now known as salsa.

Segundo studied clarinet and guitar, which he adapted to develop a new instrument he called the armonica. In the 1930s, he moved to Havana, where the son had caught fire with sextets and septets that began taking the genre beyond Cuban shores. In the early '40s, Segundo, as a clarinetist, joined the seminal band of Miguel Matamoros, perhaps the single most important early exponent of the son. Segundo rubbed shoulders with the true greats of Cuban music, including legendary singer and bandleader Beny More.

In 1942, Segundo made a move that would bring him his first taste of fame, as second voice in the Cuban duo Los Compadres. His baritone harmonies that complemented the lead vocals of Lorenzo Hierrezuelo earned him the stage name that would last the rest of his life -- Compay Segundo, or the Second Compadre.

After the Compadres split up in 1955, Segundo launched a solo career during a period of revolutionary upheaval. One recording session was interrupted by nearby rebel gunfire. In 1958, a year before Castro took power, Segundo decided to return to his old job rolling tobacco at a Havana cigar factory, a job he kept for 20 years without "missing a single day for illness," he told Billboard magazine two years ago.

Though he continued to record and even tour, Segundo's career would remain relatively unremarkable until he was rediscovered in 1996 by "Buena Vista" producers Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and guitarist Ry Cooder. After the success of the "Buena Vista Social Club" film and album, Segundo recorded a series of solo albums and toured throughout the world, covering as many as 70 cities in 2000.

Segundo threw himself into his revived career with the vigor of a man half his age. It was that inexhaustible love of life, as much as his music, that attracted new fans in his later years. At an appearance in Havana a week before his death, he told reporters he would like to father another child.

Until recently, Segundo told Billboard, he rarely collected royalties for his compositions, which include "Chan Chan," the suggestive tune of double entendres which opens "Buena Vista's" Grammy-winning 1997 album.

"Money is important, but not essential," he said. "I'm a worker of culture who likes to take Cuban music and joy to many places. That, to me, is the greatest capital a person can have -- to bring joy to others."

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