Close to the sea, in Havana's lush Miramar district, stands Alto Cedro Villa, a house that seems frozen in time, and that inspires peace, positive energy, tranquility and joy in all of its visitors. It is home to countless stories and the personal artifacts of the celebrated Cuban trova guitarist, singer and composer Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz (1907-2003), a.k.a. Compay Segundo.
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. Some of his songs, compiled on the album Las flores de la vida (The Flowers of Life) (2001), were finished in the villa and were later recorded by the Ferrara Symphonic Orchestra in Italy, according to his son, Salvador Repilado. Repilado, who is director of the Compay Segundo Museum House and the Compay Segundo Band, says that it was here at the villa that his father learned about the success of the only play he ever wrote, Se secó el arroyito (The little stream dried up), which debuted in 2001 at Havana's National Theatre and was based on his song of the same name.
On the walls of the house hang several pictures of Compay Segundo posing with renowned local and international figures, including Cuban musicians Silvio Rodríguez and Polo Montañez, legendary French singer, Charles Aznavour, Fidel Castro, and Pope John Paul II, who Compay met during a visit to the Vatican.
The Museum House was the idea of Abel Prieto, advisor to the President of Cuba, who wanted to create a special place where people could remember the music created by Segundo. Visitors to the museum can admire a variety of artifacts that characterized Segundo's extraordinary life. Among them are his hat, clarinet, and smoking pipe; gifts he received from his fans, and most notably, the Grammy Award that he won in 1997, together with the members of the Buena Vista Social Club. While touring the museum, visitors can also enjoy listening to the rhythms of popular songs played by him and his band.
The Museum House, a space for the love and revival of Cuba's musical roots, has also fostered work in the community, especially in neighbouring schools and senior citizen centers. Among the programs initiated is one that provides assistance to the Senior Choir that sings Segundo's songs. Also, an aim of the cultural institution is to encourage young Cubans to consider music as a career and to create ethical and moral values, said Repilado.
While talking with Cubaplus, Repilado stated that the institution's strategies include support for music conservatories and cultural projects, such as the theater and festivals like Cubadisco and Habano 2012.
For five years the museum has been working with several Cuban artists who have donated part of their work to charity and to the museum, for exhibition. Renowned artists such as Eduardo Roca (Choco), Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho), Roberto Fabelo, Manuel Alfredo Sosabravo, and 20 other artists have created work immortalizing Segundo's legend. Their paintings have nourished the funds of programs created to fight cancer, said Yanetsy Fernández, one of the museum's directors.
Part of the museum's work is to sponsor activities for the children's wing of Havana's Oncological Hospital, to make their life more pleasant and joyful by filling their hearts with music, said the son of Segundo, who has performed humanitarian work of his own in support of people's health and well-being.
The project also comprises a line of clothing for smokers, presented at the 2012 Habanos Festival under the Compay Segundo brand, and marketed by Lauros, of Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture. The line features humidors, lighters and cigar cutters, ties, pants, shirts and t-shirts, said Fernández.
But the most important mark left by the ambassador of hope and peace, as Compay Segundo was described by John Paul II, is his band, which was founded in 1955, and which recently toured France to celebrate what would have been Segundo's 105th birthday. The tour included a special concert in Paris, where Segundo was always welcome.
“With this program, we are reliving the historical event that the French media described as the storming of Paris's Bastille by Compay Segundo”, Repilado said. Segundo, who first played the clarinet and was known for his innovation, also learned to play the guitar and the Cuban tres (a guitar-like instrument with three sets of two strings), which became his instrument of choice. He was also the inventor of the armónico, a Cuban tres with a seventh string.
Today, the Compay Segundo Band continues to captivate audiences of all generations, from all continents. Among its missions is to preserve and enhance the musical contributions of Compay Segundo. The band's most recent record, Siempre Compay (Unicornio Records, 2005), is proof of their commitment to maintain Segundo's legacy.
One thing is certain, Compay Segundo's musical biography captures three things he believed in very deeply: people, love and respect.