Singing Compay's Praises

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JOSE GOITIA/AP

Lush life: Segundo smokes a cigar he rolled himself at the "Por Larranaga" cigar factory in Havana

As a child growing up in Key West, Florida, I knew about Cuba in the same way that astronomers know about black holes; I never saw it, but I knew it by its gravitational pull. I ate saffron rice and chicken al mojo de ajo; I listened to son, salsa and guaguancó as it poured from car stereos on hot days. I nodded when Cuban exiles told stories about the raptures of Havana or the terrors of Castro. And I spent a lot of time looking south over the 90 miles of gray-blue water and trying to imagine what the Real Cuba was like.

Almost two decades later, on an impossibly hot July night in 1999, I finally met the Real Cuba. He was an old man, dressed sharply and accompanied by two beautiful young women who were clearly neither his nurses nor his nieces. He wore his trademark white Panama hat and clenched a thick H. Upmann cigar in his teeth. And when he arrived to watch our band play at la Casa de Amistad in Havana, the entire crowd turned toward him and applauded, a long ovation that he shrugged off with a sly smile before sitting down with his escorts and ordering rum for the entire table.

His name was Compay Segundo, the legendary singer and guitarist whose life had been long enough to accommodate two breathtaking rags-to-riches cycles: born poor, he became a celebrated musician in the '20s whose phone stopped ringing in the '60s until the late '90s, when he suddenly became the most famous (beardless) Cuban alive.  

When I heard last week that Segundo had died, I was saddened and actually quite surprised. Yes, he was 95. And I don't doubt his claim that he had been smoking cigars since 1912. And in the 1980's, many casual music observers thought he was already dead, so completely had the world forgotten him. But now Compay Segundo was clearly on a roll: adored by his people, wealthy beyond reckoning in pesos, and still performing the music he loved.

He may have just become the first 95-year-old to be cut down in his prime.

 I had seen him once before that summer of 1999, several months earlier. He had stood 12 feet tall, on a movie screen in San Francisco, taking his unlikely star turn as himself in Wim Wender's documentary about the Buena Vista Social Club, the band that a year earlier had won Segundo a Grammy and generally elevated him and a handful of his compatriots from obscure relics of Cuba's golden age to international superstars, icons of the newly rediscovered grace and warmth behind the iron veil of the Cuban embargo.

Inspired in part by the music they made, I put my fledgling career as a jazz saxophonist on hold and headed with my girlfriend to experience Havana firsthand. Before long I was playing with El Septeto Tipico de la Habana, a talented and remarkably underpaid group of musicians who played weeknights at la Casa de Amistad (The House of Friendship). The casa was a mansion that had been nationalized to become a cultural institute and was now hosting Puerto Rican socialists on solidarity junkets, Cuban black marketeers and bureaucrats, and the occasional stray tourist.

Segundo came to see us on occasion because our opening band was often Los Nietos de Compay Segundo (The Grandsons of Compay Segundo). He even sat in with our group, his baritone a graveled wonder as it worked through the peasant songs he was so famous for. But he was not there to dote on his grandkids or to pass stern lessons to the next generation of musician, as would have been his right. Rather, he was there to have a good time. He drank well and laughed often, smoked constantly and chatted up everyone who came to wish him well. And he was quite friendly with me, which may have had more to do with my girlfriend Julia, whom he tried to pinch, kiss or squeeze whenever she came near. And yet even in lechery he was completely charming.

Watching him hold court on the terrazzo patio, it wasn't lost on me that the origin of his birth would probably have kept him out of such places in pre-Castro Cuba. Segundo, born Maximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz in Siboney, Cuba, was the grandson of a freed slave. When fame came knocking on his door again, I think Segundo did not mind becoming another feather in Castro's utopian hat, adding poetry and charm to the drier accomplishments of universal health care, equal job opportunity, and subsidized education.  

That entire summer was an incredible show the island put on for us as well as others. The Cuban people were, and are, stunning in their warmth and generosity. The city itself, seemingly untouched in 40 years, was pure melancholic Caribbean beauty. And Castro endlessly paraded his significant achievements as a leader while behaving himself uncharacteristically well. It was as if this handful of old musicians and their songs of villages and girls from long ago lured both dissidents and oppressors into a season of détente.  

That peace has long since disappeared. The spring of 2003 has seen a brutal crackdown on dissidents and independent journalists. Hijacked crop dusters and military planes are landing with increased frequency at the airport in Key West. In April, three young men who had hijacked an aging ferryboat in Havana Bay were executed by firing squad. This week, just days after Compay Segundo's death, two separate boat hijackings left 3 dead and a 10-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to the head. On Wednesday, Celia Cruz, the Cuban-born "Queen of Salsa" whom Castro barred from ever returning to Cuba, died in exile in New Jersey at the age of 78.

  Our band played a cover of Chan Chan, Segundo's signature song, every night, ending the song ending in a chorus about Segundo. The band chanted out his name as the lead singer belted over the top, literally singing Segundo's praises. Of all the lines sung in those homages, I remember this one particularly well today: "Compay, as he goes, so go the Cuban people."