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Cigar Diary: Me and Compay

The death of Compay Segundo at 95 is a loss for the worlds of music and cigars.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

The cigar world is going to be a lot poorer with the death of Compay Segundo, Cuban guitar maestro and a key figure in the famous band Buena Vista Social Club. He was not only a great musician, bringing joy and emotion to anyone who listened to his Cuban folk music, but he was also a man who brought a great deal of pride and glamour to the cigar world. He was seldom seen without a cigar in his hand, unless he was strumming his "armonica," a unique seven-string guitar that he personally developed to enhance his style of music, called son in Cuba.

I met the musician in February 1998. Carlos Villota, a good friend and the manager of the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana at the time, organized a small dinner in his hotel for 40 cigar smokers. He said that he had some special entertainment for the group, and the music would arrive following a multicourse meal and three or four cigars. We were sipping on 15-year-old Havana Club rum and smoking Hoyo Double Coronas, 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 playing his unique guitar and singing some breathtaking ballads. There were no other musicians in the room. He arrived with a few family members and his wife, who didn't look a day over 30. His splendid voice and crisp guitar were more than enough to captivate the room. 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 rum and a Cohiba Robusto.

I am no music expert, particularly Cuban music, but I remember being enchanted with the small man who played with his heart as well as with decades of experience. One of my friends with me was an avid collector of Cuban music, and he described Segundo as a pivotal figure in classic Cuban music. My buddy said that Segundo was a national treasure for Cuba and a major influence in the blending of Afro jazz and Cuban danzon music, which evolved into the mambo and cha cha cha on the island. "You don't realize how cool this is, man," said my friend. Segundo had already received a Grammy for his work with the Buena Vista Social Club, but he had not yet really hit the big time. In fact, he still did gigs such as ours for a few friends on the island and for very little money at all, maybe a few hundred dollars plus rum and smokes.

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

However, the life of a musician in Cuba has always been difficult, and Segundo regularly supplemented his income with other jobs. He worked on and off as a cigar roller. "I used to roll cigars," he said during the evening at the Melia Cohiba Hotel. "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 pantellas or petit coronas, which may be why he said he could roll so many. 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 not a very good roller. "I was not very good at all," he recalled that evening. "I remember being fired once by Ramón Cifuentes in Partagas. He was a real bastard."

The Cuban government 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 earlier this year with a limited-edition humidor of Montecristo cigars wrapped with special bands showing the face of the musician to celebrate his 95th birthday. Ninety-five of the humidors were sold at $2,000 each, with 20 percent of the proceeds benefiting art schools in Cuba. The handmade wooden humidor holds 95 cigars, each with a band featuring Compay's likeness, white straw hat and all. It includes 55 Montecristo No. 4s and 40 Salomones No. 2s. Apparently, Habanos, the global distribution organization for Cuban cigars, has already been flooded with requests for the box. Prices are skyrocketing.

Segundo's worldwide fame obviously derived from his membership in the Buena Vista Social Club, which received a Grammy Award in 1997. But he achieved true celebrity status following the release of Wim Wenders' film on the group, which included such greats as Rubén Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. After that, he attended just about every major cigar dinner on the island, often playing music at the events. He began selling his trademark white straw hats in charity cigar auctions and they usually sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

Segundo was a master of publicity, and even outdid the island's illustrious leader, Fidel Castro, at a Habanos cigar auction in 2001. He had the crowd of about 1,000 singing his song "Chan Chan" and a few minutes later sold his hat to someone in the audience for $17,500, which benefited the Cuban health system. The resulting price awed Cuban president Fidel Castro. "I can't believe that someone paid $17,500 for Compay's hat," the president said, obviously surprised.

Just a year before, Segundo had won an award from Habanos S.A. for promoting the pleasures of smoking Cuban cigars. He, indeed, became an international spokesman for great Cuban smokes. But also he had an honest 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 fact, Segundo loved talking about tobacco. At the end of the dinner in February 1998, Segundo asked everyone to come outside the dining room 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 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. We were all floating on good food, rum, cigars and the 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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