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Cuban Music Lesson: Compay Segundo

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

Cuban music had its greatest flowering over the past 100 years. Before that, with the exception of the development of the danzon and the rumba, things had stayed fairly static musically. It’s hard to come up with new musical stylings when you are busy being a slave or rebelling against Spanish tyranny. In the 20th century Cuban music went from something that was played in small back lots to giant arena stadiums around the world. Compay Segundo saw this evolution first hand.

Compay Segundo was born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz in 1907. When he was a kid, he left his backwater town of Siboney for the big city of Santiago de Cuba. He learned to play clarinet, guitar, and tres (a special three stringed guitar) for Santiago’s municipal band. Back then, a hot date was to put on your boater hat and seersucker suit and walk with your lady in the park. The municipal band would play in the gazebo bandstand at the center of the park and everyone would dance. Compay honed his skills during this time, and soon left Santiago for Havana. Compay played with several different bands over the years, having a lot of success in the 30’s and 40’s with his group Los Compadres. This was during the heyday of the Cuban big bands, when tourists from all over the world travelled to Cuba to drink rum, smoke cigars, and sneak off to a dark corner with a señorita. Compay Segundo’s lyrics reflected this world of awesomeness, singing about women, drinking, and the good times.

Compay Segundo had an unlikely second wind at the age of 90 when he joined the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. Unlike a lot of the other old foggies in the band, Compay was still touring and composing. His guitar playing was featured on most of the historic album’s songs including his hit Chan Chan. Compay Segundo toured all over the world with Buena Vista and later with his own band. When he died at age 96 in 2003, he’d just gotten back from touring. Compay Segundo was there when popular Cuban music was created and lived long enough to see its renaissance. We hope we have half the vitality of Compay Segundo when we’re 96. Who are we kidding? If we get to 96 they will probably have to change the diapers in our zero grav space suits twice a day.

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