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Havana Corner: A Cuban Icon Is Gone

Posted: July 15, 2003
Cuba just won't be the same without guitar maestro Compay Segundo, who died Sunday night in Havana. The 95-year-old was an icon to the island -- a man who bridged the past and the present of Cuba through his international presence as well as his emotional, traditional music.

The first time I met the musician was in February 1998. Carlos Villota, a good friend of mine who at the time managed the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana, organized a small dinner there for 40 keen cigar smokers. He said that he had some special entertainment for the group, which would arrive following a multicourse meal and three or four cigars. We were on the rum and a Hoyo Double Corona when Segundo walked into the small room, which was slightly bigger than your average living room.

He nodded to everyone, said good evening and started strumming away on his unique guitar and singing some breathtaking ballads. There were no other musicians. He arrived with a few family members and his wife, who didn't look a day over 30. He played a handful of his folk songs, each describing various aspects of rural life in Cuba. It was the type of music that he always liked to play, he said later in the evening while enjoying a glass of 15-year-old rum and a Cohiba Robusto.

Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1907, Segundo, whose real name was Francisco Repilado, had a large influence in the development of son music on the island. His stage name came from the word Compay , which is slang for compadre, and the word Segundo referred to his bass harmony voice. He started his music career with some of the best, playing in the 1920s with some of the great classic musicians such as Sindo Garay, Nico Saquito, Miguel Matamaros and Benny More, according to the International Music Network. In the 1930s and 1940s he worked as a clarinetist for El Conjunto Matamoros, a well-known group of the time. He didn't have his own group until 1956, when he formed the trio of Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos.

The life of a musician in Cuba was always difficult, and Segundo was always supplementing his income with other jobs. He worked on and off as a cigar roller. "I used to roll cigars," he said. "I started as a roller when I was 14 years old. I could roll 300 cigars a day."

Most of the cigars made in the first part of the twentieth century were small by today's standards, more like panetelas or petit coronas, which may be why he said he could roll so many cigars. The average roller in a Cuban factory now does between 80 and 130 cigars a day, depending on the size and shape. In any case, Segundo said he was a poor roller. "I was not very good at all," he recalled that evening. "I remember being fired once by Ramone Cifuentes in Partagas. He was a difficult character."

The Cuban cigar industry always claimed that Segundo had worked in the H. Upmann factory in the late 1950s, but strangely, neither the musician nor a former owner of the establishment, Benjamin Menendez, could remember him working there. Regardless, Cuba honored Segundo with a limited-edition humidor of Montecristo cigars wrapped with special bands showing the face of the musician earlier this year to celebrate his 95th birthday. Ninety-five humidors were sold at $2,000 each, with 20 percent of the proceeds benefiting art schools in Cuba.

A good part of his world fame came from being a member of the Buena Vista Social Club, which received a Grammy Award in 1997, but he really shined in the limelight following the release of Wim Wenders' film on the group, which includes such greats as Rubén Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. He attended just about every major cigar dinner on the island afterwards, both playing music at various events as well as attending as a celebrity in his own right. He even began selling his trademark white straw hat in charity cigar auctions on the island, and they usually sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

Just last year he won an award from Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution organization for Cuban cigars, for promoting the pleasures of smoking Habanos. He became an international spokesman for the great Cuban cigar.

Having a keen interest in tobacco, he occasionally visited his good friend Alejandro Robaina, the octogenarian tobacco grower from San Luis with a cult following for his great leaf, and liked nothing better than sitting on Robaina's porch in a rocking chair, smoking a cigar and talking about tobacco and life in general in Cuba.

In fact, Segundo was seldom seen in public without a good cigar in his hand, unless he was performing music. At the end of the dinner in February 1998, Segundo asked everyone to take a group picture in the hall of the hotel. Luckily, there was an empty cigar roller's bench that had been vacated for the night by the hotel's custom roller. With his giant Cheshire cat grin, he sat at the bench while everyone grouped around him for the photo. He was laughing and said in his earthy way, "I really was a bad cigar roller. Shit, I was bad. Thank God I was fired. I never would have been famous in music!"

When he was finally getting ready to leave the hotel, I asked him one last question as we were all very happy on good food, rum, cigars and company. "Compay, you look like you are 50 years younger," I said. "How do you do it?"

He was 90 at the time. He looked at me with his bright, energetic eyes and cracked a huge smile. "Boy, it's very simple. I drink a lot, I smoke a lot and I fuck a lot."


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