Wednesday, October 21, 1998

Cuban Wonder

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Fred McDowell, John Hurt and Bukka White all became better known later in life than they had been at any time previously. When they were rediscovered, after years of farming and/or working in rough-hewn, blue-collar surroundings, their art connected a more modern age with part of its past.

The same thing has happened in Cuba of late. Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo, had a music career during the 1940s when he was singing with Nico Saquito, the Quarteto Hatuey and his own duo, Los Compadres. He then spent a few decades in a less visible position, rolling cigars in a factory and occasionally playing in local clubs.

At 90 years old, Segundo jumped onto the international stage in a big way with his appearance on Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club project last year. After his role in making that album such a critical success, Segundo brings his remarkably powerful vocals to a project that hails back to the early, glory days of son, when Abelardo Barroso was king of the Sexteto Habañero.

Lo Mejor de la Vida is an astoundingly laid-back work of art that flexes the various rhythms played by Segundo -- and his unique seven-string guitar -- and a cast of Cuban luminaries. He picks his tunes from history, covering songs by Beny Moré and Ernesto Lecuona, but Segundo is an amazingly flexible writer as well. Much of his material has that classic Cuban string band feel to it, but "Juliancito," a collaboration between Segundo and flamenco guitarist Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, hints at the singer's willingness to blend genres if the magic is there.

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