Music Makers: Compay Segundo
Apr. 23, 1998
HAVANA (AP) _ Francisco Repilado waves a cigar, sips 7-year-old rum and almost giggles with enthusiasm over the award-winning music pouring from the stereo.
``Hear that? Hear that? That's me,'' the 90-year-old says, marking the beat with a jittery trail of cigar smoke in his small apartment overlooking a rutted, rundown street in Central Havana.
These are good times for Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo, who is the surprising spearhead of a worldwide boom for Cuban popular music, a boom younger artists hope to enjoy.
Repilado has become an international music star, setting packed audiences to dancing in Spain, England and France. He is featured on the Grammy-winning ``Buena Vista Social Club,'' a record of traditional Cuban ``son'' produced by Ry Cooder.
The Buena Vista record, released last year, has sold roughly 750,000 copies worldwide, including some 150,000 in the United States, said David Bithen, a spokesman for Nonesuch Records.
Salsa clubs, too, are booming in Europe, playing an electrified, big-band grandson of son, which mixes harder African rhythms with Spanish lyricism.
``It's the beginning of the end of the isolation of Cuban music which was outside the (U.S.) market for political reasons,'' Cuban producer Juan de Marcos, who helped on the Buena Vista sessions, said.
Mixing African, Spanish and American influences, Cuban music has a long history of invading the world's dance floors, with danzon, the mambo, the cha cha, rumba and more recently salsa.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans, including leading artists such as Celia Cruz, fled to the United States after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. That helped keep a taste for Cuban music alive despite a 37-year U.S. embargo on the island. Cuban-American artists such as Gloria Estefan have helped encourage it.
But the embargo also has tended to isolate Cuba-based musicians, greatly complicating U.S. travel and recording deals, which require special government permission or complicated paperwork.
``The Grammy is another little push to recover the level that Cuban music had in the international market in the 1940s and 1950s,'' de Marcos said.
Bithen, however, insists politics is not behind the current boom: ``This is about music,'' he said.
A decade or so ago, Ripilado was rolling H. Upmann coronas in a cigar factory and making occasional appearances on local radio stations when a Spanish tourist heard him playing at Havana's Hotel Kohli and arranged for him to come to tour Spain. That led to recording contracts.
Today, he is packing concert halls in France and Spain and even, once again, in Cuba, where his traditional son-style of music had once seemed passe.
``I was never forgotten,'' he insists.
But even the Cuban music magazine ``Salsa Cubana'' reports that some music experts until recently did not know he was still alive. Repilado didn't even get his nickname until he was about 40, when he was the second voice in the duo ``Los Compadres,'' a word Cubans shorten to ``compay.''
At 14, he began playing clarinet in the municipal band of his native Santiago in eastern Cuba, the center of the island's musical culture. Each concert, he recalled, had to begin with a waltz and several stately danzon dance pieces. ``It was the era of romanticism,'' he said, sawing at an imaginary violin.
But it was also an era in which Cuban son was coming into its own and laying the groundwork for modern Cuban music.
For son, Repilado developed a unique seven-string guitar with a doubled middle string to add harmonics.
Throughout the middle of the century, he was a well-known musician in Cuba, playing with Nico Saquito, the Quarteto Hatuey and his own duo, Los Compadres, until 1953. Repilado continued to perform intermittently as a solo artist for several years, while also rolling tobacco.
``Before asking for tips in restaurants, I'd rather roll tobacco,'' he said.
In the 1980s he formed a group called Compay Segundo y sus Muchachos (Compay Segundo and his Boys) for a tour of the Dominican Republic. The group appeared at a festival in Washington, D.C., in 1985.
His latest hit, ``Chan Chan,'' was very popular with groups at a recent Havana music festival. ``It seemed like the national anthem,'' said Victoria Penalver of Cuba's National Institute of Music.
Other Cuban artists, like the traditional Grupo Sierra Maestra and modern salsa bands, also have recorded in Europe. Even Cooder's ``Buena Vista'' project was carried out for the British World Circuit label.
Cooder was back in Cuba in March for more recording, and Bithen said that with the success of recent Cuban discs, many musicians were in Cuba.
That is creating hopes for many of Cuba's 11,000 registered musicians, who have already benefited from a tourism boom that has dotted Cuba with new or restored restaurants and hotels, each of which seems to feature live music.
Those who can sell records abroad, or travel there, have access to dollars _ a major incentive in an island where base pay for musicians can be as low as $6 a month.
While tourist restaurants are too costly for most Cubans, the government sponsors cheap concerts in nightclubs such as Havana's Tropical, an open-air salsa palace, or even in the streets, though most musicians can still only dream of Repilado's international popularity.
``My dream is that Cuban musicians are paid what they should be paid, and not what they need to buy oil to fry an egg, if they have one,'' said de Marcos.
Hundreds of people turned out on a recent Sunday to hear the thunderous drums of the rumba group Clave y Guaguanco on the Callejon de Hammel, a mural-lined street dedicated to Afro-Cuban culture and religion.
``Life is difficult. There are few performances,'' said Jose Perez, a drummer in the group. ``It is very difficult for Cuban musicians to travel.''
Clave y Guaguanco, despite several records in Cuba and some recognition in international awards ceremonies, has never traveled abroad.
Ernesto Pedrero, whose band specializes in son-style dance music, is also looking for a break.
On a recent Saturday night at the Casa de Trova (House of Song) not far from Repilado's apartment, Pedrero's band kicked into a sizzling dance song for a crowd of about 30 that looked like it had stumbled in for a church social: grandparents and fidgety children dodging eggs someone periodically tossed from an upper-story apartment.
``This house is very much for the neighborhood,'' said the Casa's director, Grisel Bernal, who charges a 5-cents entry fee.