BA: Last November, you celebrated your 90th birthday. If someone wanted to, they could write the history of Cuban music through the life of Compay Segundo. 

CS: The music that I play and that I like is traditional music, maybe it's because of my age. I play that music because it's history. Young people want to know their roots. And there has to be somebody who shows them, says, "Look here, this is the way they played it in yesteryear." I don't let it go, because this is the history of music, that's what I represent. It's also the music that's been popular. I've traveled to Europe, Italy, France, Madrid, the Canary Islands, all those places. Big crowds, because it's a music to be enjoyed,, that's very important. I wrote three numbers in Spain, a "bolero-son" to Madrid, one to a bull, and one based on a poem by García-Lorca. I visited his house. And his great-granddaughter sent me the poem to set it to music. And I gave it a youthful style, and she liked it a lot. García-Lorca, if he were alive, would be an old man like me, but I  wasn't going to have the music be old. So I made "Ire a Santiago," the poem by García-Lorca. The day I played it, the great-granddaughter cried a lot. I've done a lot of things away from my homeland. Now I'm here in Havana and people know who Compay Segundo is. They've given me all kinds of honors. When it comes to musicians, I'm like the daddy of musicians here in Cuba. There's isn't a musician around older than I am. I know all the musicians of Cuba.

BA: What styles do you most like to compose in?

CS: I have danzones, waltzes, sones. I have some beautiful danzones. Why? Because I've learned from those who know how to preserve the tradition of the music. I play music the way it was played in yesteryear. I started out playing the "son corto" (short son). As Miguel Matamoros used to say, "The son is short and sweet." I started  hearing that "son cortico." Back in the day, they'd start out playing son at seven in the evening, and they'd greet the dawn with it. "Woman, if I could understand your way of loving If I could understand that for your love I have to be born I'd ask God for death, I'd ask God for light To love you and love you like you'd like"

BA: What's your relationship of friendship and work with Ry Cooder been like?

CS: Ry Cooder for me is a master, a great master that has a wonderful feel for Cuban music. He's also paid tribute my talent a bit, even though I don't know half of what he knows. But he's paid tribute a bit. I received some flowers from him in Madrid that he sent from Los Angeles. I was surprised. They knocked on my hotel room door and they gave me these flowers from Ry Cooder. And when I returned to Havana he sent some flowers on my 89th birthday. I got an envelope from Ry Cooder too. He sent me some photos where we appear together, three or four photos and some other things. So I know that he knows where I am. When I was in Europe, he told me, "Don't burn out, take care of yourself, I need you." Those are his words. Because there's a very beautiful song, not because it's mine, but it's beautiful, that's called "The Pen," that he liked a lot. I speak of the pen without barely mentioning it: "The distance that separates us doesn't matter  When two heats feel the same With my faithful companion that also knows how to speak I'll tell you that nothing will keep me from loving you We should be grateful that part of our love is how softly It traces out our feelings You are the paper and I the pen And soon you'll receive a letter of love."

BA: What was the music scene like in 1930s and 40s Cuba?

CS: I remember from those days the Septeto Nacional, el Septeto Habanero. There was the Orquesta de Fernando Collazo, the Orquesta Maravillas del Siglo, there were Cachao and Jesús López. I also remember the Conjunto de Arsenio Rodríguez. That was a great one. That band was instrumental because they were among the first to put together that type of conjunto. But here in Havana around that time there were the "sociedades." And at the beginning when the septetos began, the sociedades didn't want anybody playing  bongos. The sociedades were puritanical, they didn't want bongos, they said "those are for the black people." But as time went by, that music gained popularity, so they had to introduce it into the sociedades too. It was beautiful, happy music. I'm from that time of the septetos. Each one had its own style. In those days, you could distinguish the sound of the different conjuntos, and the different orquestas. These days it's all more simple. When you here a conjunto and you hear another conjunto, you think it's like a continuation of the first. It's all the same, same, same. There's no variety, just the same music. Same thing with dancing. Before, the couples danced. The man felt the heat of the woman, there were even kisses on the  dance floor. But today it's different, the woman jumps this way and the man jumps that way. Before, women would buy a dress a the man, to place his hand on her back had to use a perfumed and very expensive handkerchief. Now, they're jumping up and down and on one night the dress is dirtied from all that sweat, it's a disaster. Before, people danced very class, the party would end and the dresses would still be clean. That's the difference between today and yesterday. Back then, a dance was a show. Because at a dance all the best dancers would show up. There'd be groups of the best. A  dancer would come up and say, "Get out of there, you don't know how to do dance." There were dance competitions. Not today. Today there's just a bunch of jumping, everyone jumping and sweating. I think they're mistreating art a bit, because art is not about that. I've  visited Italy, France, England, with a quartet. And you can have an  orquesta of 16 professores, but when I play people are going to hear me. But why? Because people are very interested in my poetry, in what I say. But with a salsa orchestra, you can't hear the poetry. You hear the trombones, the trumpet, the keyboards, you hear everything, except what the singer is saying. They should rectify that, it's a failure. I say it's a failure. One time in Spain I was playing and a trumpeter got up to accompany my quartet and people covered their ears. They better rectify that. Every time I talk about this, I say: when the singer is singing, he must be respected, you must be able to hear what he's saying. You can't put a trombone and a drum up there, and a microphone on the drum, microphones on everybody. You can't  hear what he's saying.

BA: One of your best-known compositions is "Chan Chan," a son that is very popular in Cuba and in the exterior. 

CS: One of my last songs was "Chan Chan," which I wrote in 1987. I played it for the first time at a club called Cristino. It's a number that has four notes, and four chords. There's very few numbers that you can sing the whole song with four notes. I've been to Santa Clara-Las Villas province and everybody up there knows it; I've been to Santiago de Cuba y and everybody there knows it too. I go by a school and when a kid sees me, he says, "Look, it's Compay Segundo," and starts singing, "I'm going from Alto Cedro to Marcané then from Cueto, I'm going to Mayarí."


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Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
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