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Posted July 14, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Music

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By JOHN RICE | Associated Press Writer
HAVANA - Compay Segundo, a once-forgotten Cuban musician who gained worldwide fame with the “Buena Vista Social Club,” has died in Havana. He was 95.

(AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Born Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz, the wiry, cigar-smoking musician carried traditional Cuban music to the world. He was honored with a Grammy as part of the “Buena Vista Social Club” in his 90th year and helped draw attention to other aging but talented Cuban musicians.

Compay set audiences dancing from Havana to Paris with hits like “Chan Chan,” which brought modern appeal to a musical genre that had largely been forgotten even at home in Cuba.

Cuban state television said he died Sunday night of kidney failure, two days after attending a tribute concert hosted by his sons at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, where a concert room is dedicated to him.

It said his body would be sent to Santiago in eastern Cuba, his boyhood home, for burial.

Compay had been ailing in recent months and his sons told Cuban news media that his health had deteriorated in recent days.

Born Nov. 18, 1907, in the eastern town of Siboney, he was nine when he moved with his family to nearby Santiago, the heart of Cuban musical culture. By age 14, he was playing the clarinet in his hometown’s municipal band.

Each concert, he recalled, had to begin with a waltz and several stately “danzon” dance pieces. “It was the era of romanticism,” he said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, sawing at an imaginary violin.

Cuban “son” mixing harder African rhythms with Spanish lyricism was coming into its own, breaking down discrimination against “black” music and laying the groundwork for modern Cuban music such as salsa.

Compay emerged as a well-known musician in Cuba, playing with Nico Saquito, the Cuarteto Hatuey and his own duo, Los Compadres, until 1953.

He developed a unique seven-string guitar that he called the “armonica” that had a doubled middle string to add harmonics for Cuban son rhythms.

He got his nickname when he was about 40 and performing as the second voice in the duo “Los Compadres” a word Cubans shorten to “compay.”

In the late 1950s, he formed a group called “Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos” (Compay Segundo and his Boys) for a tour of the Dominican Republic.

After the 1959 triumph of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro (news - web sites), Compay continued to perform intermittently as a solo artist and occasionally made appearances on local radio stations. His day job was rolling H. Upmann coronas in a local cigar factory.

The Cuban music magazine “Salsa Cubana” reported that some music experts in the 1980s did not even know he was still alive.

Compay was already in his 70s, playing at Havana hotel when a Spanish tourist heard him and invited him to perform in Spain in 1994. He was a hit, and went on to make several records there.

A few years later, he was packing concert halls in Europe and his fame grew far wider when he was featured on the hit record “Buena Vista Social Club,” a record of traditional Cuban son produced by Ry Cooder (news), which won a 1997 Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance.

The record, and Compay’s popularity, also helped bring renewed fame to musician such as Pio Leyva, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo (news).

A widely praised film of the same name, based on the sessions, was directed by Wim Wenders (news).

The Hotel Nacional held a three-day celebration in Compay’s honor on his 95th birthday last year. He moved a bit slowly and was slightly hard of hearing, but remained notably lucid.

“I feel content, successful ... you shouldn’t succumb to boredom,” he told reporters.

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