Compay Segundo Dies

Cuban legend was ninety-five

July 14, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Compay Segundo, whose good-natured charisma made him one of the most popular members of the Buena Vista Social Club, died of kidney failure this morning in Havana; he was ninety-five.

Born Francisco Repilado near Santiago in 1907, Segundo took his first name from a slang term for "pal," which fit his exuberant personality. The singer/guitarist, always sporting his trademark Panama hat, spun a career that spanned parts of nine decades. A pre-revolution legend in Cuba, Segundo inked numerous compositions and invented his own instrument, a variation on the guitar and tres, a native Cuban instrument. Due to U.S./Cuba travel and trade embargo, Segundo's name was virtually unknown in the United States, and for a brief time he took up work as a cigar roller, before he was rediscovered by Ry Cooder, who compiled the Buena Vista Social Club album.

With the release of BVSC in 1997, Segundo and several other Cuban musicians enjoyed worldwide renown; one of his compositions, the randy "Chan Chan," was the first and most recognizable cut on the album.

"There's tremendous talent in Cuba, like Segundo, like [Ibrahim] Ferrer, like [Manuel] Galban," Cooder told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "and I think there always has been. Whether we'll see the likes of anything like this again, I doubt it. The world is a different place now. This kind of expression, emotional expression, they just don't grow people like this anymore."

Segundo made the most of the rediscovery of his music. Despite his age, eighty-nine at the time of the album's release, he toured regularly and recorded prolifically, releasing several albums in the six years between BVSC and his death.

Along with his peers, he also helped salvage a legacy of music that was nearly snuffed out of existence, as practitioners of pre-revolution Cuban musicians began to die out and more modern sounds became chic. "The repertoire that we do, the songs by Compay, Ruben [pianist, Gonzalez], has rescued the purest and most traditional way of playing Cuban music," BVSC singer Omara Portuondo said. "Their songs are songs that the world was waiting to hear again."

Segundo will be buried this week in Santiago.

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