|Born in 1907 -- which, on today's 2002 release, now makes him 95 years old -- Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo has long been celebrated as one of his island nation's most important pre-revolution artists. He is the inventor of the armónico, a guitar with an added third string that combines the timbres of the classical Spanish guitar and its traditional Cuban tres equivalent. While the armónico went on to become a mainstay of contemporary Cuban ensembles, perhaps outside Cuba the name of its inventor isn't commonplace pop quiz knowledge.
Segundo collaborated with Benny Moré, Sindo Garay, and Miguel Matamoros before Castro's rise to rulership saw him roll cigars instead. The late 80s afforded a return to music. In 1998, Ry Cooder's unexpected breakout album Bueno Vista Social Club branded the name Compay Segundo in fiery letters into the thick skin of global consciousness. Compay Segundo has authored a steady stream of annual releases since.
As our liner notes explain, duet singing is a highly popular form of Cuban music. Some of its most legendary performers were "Los Compadres" -- Lorenzo Hierrezuelo and Francisco Repilado. The former makes an appearance on the concluding track "Tente en Pie" to bring home the stunning longevity of this art form and its surviving maestros.
When Los Comprades broke up in 1955, Repilado created a new band around Compay Segundo and teamed up with other famous primos like Carlos Embale and Pío Leyva. Recording "La Mujer del Peso" in 1957, the artist recalls having to interrupt the sessions each time the artillery of the revolutionaries hit Fulgencio Batista's presidential palace. These mortar attacks were audible in the recording studio. Calling Compay a living (breathing & smoking) legend is perfectly unavoidable.
Segundo means "The Second". It humbly yet cunningly refers to a missing "Primero" counterpart, i.e. any of the countless musicians he's accompanied and played with over the decades. On duets, he surrounds himself with such unlikely vocal collaborators as Khaled, Charles Aznavour, Cesaria Evora, the Flamenco singer Martirio and Flamenco guitarist Raimundo Amador. Then there are the more intutive pairings with Silvio Rodriguez, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Basilio Repilado, Lou Bega, Santiago Auserón, Pío Levya, Félix Valoy and Pablo Milanés, for a generous and comprehensive total of sixteen unique encounters.
When I referred to unlikely vocal partners, I didn't mean ill-fitting. Many of this album's highlights -- and there are many indeed -- are really the result of these unexpected yet beautifully conceived and realized juxtapositions. Take "Saludo a Chango", an hommage to the African thunder god. Compay opens this slowly lilting son on armónico before his voice, seasoned with age yet still bursting with vitality and filled with a charismatic playful innocence that recalls Satchmo, intones the first verse.
All along, you perceive subtle vocal background arabesques and the timbre of the oud seemingly harkening from a different continent altogether. Before you can brush it off as imagination, Khaled leads the 2nd verse and now a distinctly Algerian breeze penetrates the Cuban cigar smoke for certain. Mercado turns souk. But rather than a shock to the system, this and subsequent hand-offs between the culturally disparate singers ring perfectly natural. They simply point at the Black Continent as the cradle of much of Cuban musical verbacular that has spread as far away as Peru.
"Lagrimas Negras" invites the barefooted Capo Verde diva Cesaria Evora and adds Chucho Valdés on piano. Cuban flute meets Portuguese strings. Until the typically Latin backup chorus injects a few choice lines, you're not quite certain what town and country you'd emerge to were you to leave this mature dancefloor.
"Chan Chan" with the voice and guitar of Eliades Ochoa, much copied but never eclipsed 80s hit; "Macusa" with Pablo Milanés; "Tente en Pie" with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo; these tunes evoke the languorous spirit of tropical 3rd world living tempered by hard work and challenging temperatures. Sunburnt characters congegrate on plain back porches or parched grounds to the quiet sophistication of a 3+5 beat. Subtly dancing, swaying and turning with natural economy of motion, they exude an unmistakable elegance despite simple or even marginal settings.
Duets is truly folk music from the heartland of Cuba, undiluted, at once raw and polished, by one of its most persuasive ambassadors. A classic from and by a classic. For a dose of heartwarming magic, be sure not to miss it. Never mind the embargo on Cuban cigars - here's an equally potent export that's fully legit.