Thousands join procession for late Cuban musician

SANTIAGO, Cuba -- Thousands of Cubans marched in a hometown funeral procession Tuesday for Compay Segundo, singing his famed song "Chan Chan" as he was lowered into his grave.

The cigar-smoking guitarist who helped revive worldwide interest in traditional Cuban music died Sunday of kidney failure. He was 95.

Bystanders threw flowers as the musician's body passed by on a sweltering 2.5-mile journey to the cemetery from a city building where an overnight vigil was held.

At the cemetery, the crowd sang an impromptu, somewhat mournful version of "Chan Chan" -- a song made famous by the 1997 record "Buena Vista Social Club."

No senior government officials appeared at the ceremony, though Culture Minister Abel Prieto attended a memorial service Monday in Havana. Mourners -- most of them fellow musicians -- burst into a final, emotional round of applause as the hearse carrying Compay's body left the funeral home there.

Compay Segundo became an international star only in the final decade of his life -- first gaining recognition with concerts in Europe, then embraced by global fame after the 1997 Grammy-winning record "The Buena Vista Social Club" and "Chan Chan."

That record of veteran Cuban musicians brought new attention to old but vibrant music, making Compay and some of his colleagues more famous in Spain than they were in much of Cuba, where traditional sounds had fallen out of favor among the young.

The musician, born Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz, was born in nearby Siboney and grew up in Santiago.

Smoking cigars -- a habit he claimed to have started at age 5 -- drinking rum, smiling broadly and flirting with women, Compay Segundo became a symbol of Cuba to many outside the country.

"He represented our culture to the entire world," said Omara Portuondo, who sang on the "Buena Vista" record. "I would say that he is part of the Cuban flag."

Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto called the death "a great loss because of everything that Compay represented: the most authentic part of our popular tradition, of our musical tradition."

Still known as Repilado, he began playing the clarinet in a municipal band when he was 14 and gradually matured into a guitarist with some of Cuba's best bands of the 1930s and 1940s, moving from Santiago -- famed as the fountainhead of Cuban music -- to Havana, where it was easier to get paid.

He already was a well-established performer when, in the late 1940s, he informally adopted a name from his duo Los Compadres -- "The Comrades" -- a term Cubans often shorten to "compay." As the second voice, he became Comrade No. 2 -- Compay Segundo.

As musical styles gradually changed, Company began to perform intermittently at hotels and on local radio stations while working days as a cigar roller.

By the time he was rediscovered, many younger Cubans had never heard of him.

On Monday, his Grammy stood with other awards and medals before his open casket, which was draped with the Cuban flag, topped with his trademark Borsalino-style hat and backed by a huge spray of flowers from Cuban President Fidel Castro.

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