The Casa de la Trova or ballad-singing tradition of Santiago de Cuba has produced an enduring array of folk artists, most enduring among them Buena Vista Social Club stalwart Francisco Repilado "Compay Segundo." The nonagenarian's late career revival is exemplifies the dramatic revival of traditional forms that many Cubans had relegated to oblivion before the Buena Vista project brought the music to enthusiastic international audiences as a major artistic export. Compay began his 75-year career as a teenage student of the clarinet in Santiago in the early 1920s. There he joined the local city band, while picking up guitar pointers from Cuban legends Sindo Garay, Ñico Saquito and Miguel Matamoros. He played in a series of popular local son sextets and septets, and began to compose boleros and guarachas while also working as a barber and cigar roller. His radio debut came with the popular Cubanacán Quartet, then he moved with the Cuban Stars Quintet to Havana, where he made his first recording in the mid-1930s.
Recruited as a clarinetist by the famed Matamoros conjunto in 1942, Compay worked with his cousin and Santiago native Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, later forming the eminent Los Compadres duo with him in 1948. (Compay's deep bass voice made him the "second compadre" or compay, hence his nickname.) He formed his own group in the 1950s, working in the Dominican Republic for some time, but returned to Cuba's bohemian scene, singing occasionally with emerging younger trovadores such as Sara González and Pablo Milanés. And long before he became a world-music household name, Compay's mastery earned him a 1989 appearance at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and a renewed touring and recording career in Europe.
Las Flores De La Vida includes Compay's sons Basilio on hand percussion and vocals, and Salvador on double bass. Hugo Garzón shares lead vocals with Compay, who complements his ringing seven-string armónico (a hybrid guitar of his own invention) with the guitar of Benito Suárez, Rafael Fournier's bongo work, Rangel's subtle conga artistry, and three clarinetists, Haskell Armenteros, Rafael Inciarte and Rosendo Nardo. The result is a classic essay in vintage Cuban balladry, a wry, good-humored and incurably romantic repertoire of popular tunes by the great composers, among them Matamoros (a stoically heart-broken "Juramento" and the infectious, picaresque "El Beso Discreto"), Agustín Lara ("Enamorada," a tender overture of affection), Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe (a folorn "La Negra Tomasa") and Compay himself, whose five compositions include the title track, a stentorian bolero of undying devotion. In sum, this celebration of the incommensurability of romantic love is yet another essential title for Compay aficionados. - Michael Stone
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