Compay Segundo (18 November 1907 – Havana, 13 July 2003) was a Cuban trova guitarist, singer and composer.
Compay Segundo (meaning compadre) Segundo, so called because he was always second voice in his musical partnerships, was born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz in Siboney, Cuba, and moved to Santiago de Cuba at the age of nine. His first engagement was in the Municipal Band of Santiago de Cuba, directed by his teacher, Enrique Bueno. After a spell in a quintet, in 1934 he moved to Havana, where he also played in the Municipal Band, on the clarinet. He also learned to play the guitar and the tres: these became his usual instruments.
Compay Segundo was also the inventor of the armónico, a seven-stringed guitar-like instrument, created to eliminate a harmonic jump in the Spanish guitar and the tres. In the 1950s he became well known as the second voice and tres player in Los Compadres, a duo he formed with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo in 1947.
Los Compadres were one of the most successful Cuban duos of their time. Greater international fame came later, in 1997, with the release of the Buena Vista Social Club album, a hugely successful recording which won several Grammy awards. Compay Segundo appeared in the film of the same title, made subsequently by Wim Wenders.
Segundo’s most famous composition is “Chan Chan”, the opening track on the Buena Vista Social Club album, whose four opening chords are instantly recognizable all over the world. “Chan Chan” was recorded by Segundo himself various times as well as by countless other Latin artists. Other compositions are “Saradonga”, “La calabaza”, “Hey caramba”, “Macusa”, “Saludo Compay”. These are all sones, and this differentiates him from the more usual trova musicians, with their devotion to the bolero. However, it seems his interests went much further:
I have danzones, waltzes, sones. I have some beautiful danzones. Why? Because I’ve learned from those who know how to preserve the tradition of the music. I play music the way it was played in yesteryear. I started out playing the son corto (short son). As Miguel Matamoros used to say, “The son is short and sweet.”… Back in the day, they’d start out playing son at seven in the evening, and they’d greet the dawn with it.
At a fiesta he sang to President Fidel Castro, who took his pulse and joked about his vitality despite his 90-plus years. “Who could have imagined that?” he asked when he found himself at the Vatican City, performing “Chan Chan” before Pope John Paul II. He explained his longevity simply: mutton consommé and a drink of rum.
He predicted that he would live to be 115, but died of kidney failure in Havana, 20 years short of his ambition.
The tomb of Compay Segundo at the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba. March 2014
In 2007, the 100th anniversary of Segundo’s birth was celebrated with a concert of his compositions performed by a symphony orchestra in Havana with some of his musicians and sons.