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Compay Segundo, so called because he was always second voice in his musical partnerships, moved to Santiago de Cuba at age 9. His first engagement was in the Municipal Band of Santiago de Cuba, directed by his teacher, Enrique Bueno. After a spell in a quintet he moved to Havana in 1934, where he also played in the Municipal Band, on the clarinet. He also learned to play the guitar and the tres: these became his usual instruments. Compay Segundo was also the inventor of the armónico, a seven-stringed guitar-like instrument, created to eliminate a harmonic jump in the Spanish guitar and the tres. In the 1950s he became well known as the second voice and tres player in Los Compadres, a duo he formed with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo in 1947.
Los Compadres were one of the most successful Cuban duos of their time. Greater international fame came later, in 1997, with the release of the Buena Vista Social Club album, a hugely successful recording which won several Grammy awards. Compay Segundo appeared in the film of the same title, made subsequently by Wim Wenders.
Segundo's most famous composition is Chan Chan, the opening track on the Buena Vista Social Club album, whose four opening chords are instantly recognizable all over the world. Chan Chan was recorded by Segundo himself various times as well as by countless other Latin artists. Other compositions are Saradonga, La calabaza, Hey caramba, Macusa, Saludo Compay. These are all sones, and this differentiates him from the more usual trova musicians, with their devotion to the bolero. However, it seems his interests went much further:
At a fiesta he sang to President Fidel Castro, who took his pulse and joked about his vitality despite his 90-plus years. "Who could have imagined that?" he asked when he found himself at the Vatican City, performing Chan Chan before Pope John Paul II. He explained his longevity simply: mutton consommé and a drink of rum.
He predicted that he would live to be 115, but died of kidney failure in Havana, twenty years short of his ambition. In 2007, the hundredth anniversary of Segundo's birth was celebrated with a concert of his compositions performed by a symphony orchestra in Havana with some of his musicians and sons.