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Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz Compay Segundo, musician, born November 18 1907; died July 13 2003. The cigar-smoked tones of Compay Segundo, who has died aged 95 following kidney problems, were central to the musical phenomenon known as the Buena Vista Social Club. His unmistakeably gritty baritone featured in a near-century-long career of traditional Cuban music, while his songs relished double entendres and cheeky allusions to love. Compay attributed his longevity to cigars, flowers, rum and women. His grandmother Ma Regina, a freed slave who lived to the age of 115, was herself a cigar-smoker, and her grandson was rarely seen without one. He emphasised the importance of love and dancing on his life, and relished rumours of his incredible virility.
His railway worker father was an Andalucian, his mother an Afro-Cuban, and the young Compay started rolling tobacco leaves as a 14-year-old. Their home, in the small town of Siboney, in south-eastern Cuba, was open house for musicians, like the pioneering Sindo Garay, who sang revolutionary songs. In 1916, the family moved to the former capital, Santiago, and Compay, along with his cousin Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, learned from established groups like Trio Matamoros, whose early recordings propelled the now world-famous son repertoire around the island. By night, he joined the local troubadour scene. He had learned music, played the guitar - and its Cuban variation, the tres - and the clarinet. He drank rum and sang his own songs, and those of the local pioneers of son, and the associated styles in the acoustic trova (troubadour) tradition - guitar music accompanied by hand percussion and harmonising voices.
By the 1930s, son had infected the whole island of Cuba; trios expanded to bands and played in dance halls. By then, Compay had created a unique seven-stringed instrument, which he called an armonico, with an extra G-string that lent a complementary resonance to his voice - both instruments were at their most impressive in harmonies with another higher (primo) voice. In 1934, he moved to Havana and joined Hierrezuelo and Cuarteto Hatuey, under Evelio Machin, whose brother gave the world the El Manicero (the Peanut Vendor) in 1931. The quartet's six-month tour of Mexico in 1937 led to appearances in several films. Back in Havana, Compay's songwriting flourished. He reconnected with his childhood friend Miguel Matamoros, playing clarinet in Conjunto Matamoros, and also worked as a barber and cigar-roller. In 1942, he teamed up with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo again to form the Duo Compadres, a combination of guitar/armonico and voices, singing about rural life; through records and radio appearances their work permeated Cuba.
In 1955, Compay briefly went solo, then founded a band called Los Muchachos. Their 1957 recordings were interrupted by bombs and shootings - it was towards the end of the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista. After the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, Compay worked in hotel bars, but, in 1970, he gave up music and returned to rolling cigars. Then, in the mid-1980s, the Santiago guitarist Eliades Ochoa invited him to join the traditionalist group Cuarteto Patria, re-establishing contact with the traditions he had helped to pioneer. In 1989, they visited the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Five years later, Charlie Sanchez, managing director of the DRO East West record label, was told about the Cuban musician, then playing at a tiny venue in Madrid. He promptly signed him up, and six albums followed. There was the 1998 Lo Mejor De La Vida (The Best In Life) - with a smiling Segundo on the cover in a natty beige suit and new Panama hat - which contains the heartrending bolero Juliancito, a duet with flamenco singer Martirio. But by then, the singer was world famous; he was joined by Buena Vista's Omara Portuondo, and, surprisingly successfully, by Charles Aznavour and the Algerian rai star Khaled, thus linking Cuba's history with the Arab world. Compay's reformed Muchachos group also included his son Salvador on bass.
It had been in 1996 that Compay's fortunes changed forever. Nick Gold, of World Circuit Records, arrived in Cuba with the eclectic American guitarist Ry Cooder to make an album, and Compay was top of Cooder's list of collaborators. They set up shop in the old RCA studios, whose equipment and atmosphere was unchanged since the 1950s, and the studio band grew each day. The story was documented in Wim Wenders's film, Buena Vista Social Club (1998), and on the 1997 CD, which sold 5m copies and won a Grammy award. It took Compay's songs to the world. The BVSC was a studio band, but, in 1998, the musicians played a live show in Amsterdam, followed by concerts in London, Tokyo and New York. The small, wiry guitarist with the panama hat became one of its most beloved characters - his shuffling little dances bringing roars of applause.
Compay then began world tours with the Muchachos. Yet he was
unaffected by his changing life or new wealth - rumours suggested he
was earning around $40,000 a show. Only in 1999 did he move his family
from their spacious, but sparsely furnished, flat on the Street of
Health across town to the leafy suburb of Miramar. The song Chan Chan,
which encapsulated all that is beguiling and irresistible about the
BVSC repertoire, launched a slew of son groups in Havana's tourist
bars, and Compay used his fame to raise money for charity, auctioning
his hat one night at the Tropicana to an Italian business man for a
reported $20,000. Only last week, Compay attended a tribute concert
organised by his two sons. He had been determined to hang on to life,
to get "an extension", as he put it, like Ma Regina. His sons survive
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