At the end, the audience was chanting his name in time with his most famous song. Compay, Compay, they called, as Cuban guitarist and singer Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo, shuffled in a dance step and another musician called out a list of his accomplishments.
The song, Chan Chan, from the best-selling world music album of all time, The Buena Vista Social Club, is just a simple folk refrain. But the rhythmic drive of the seminal Cuban style, the son, and the dark power of the song’s hypnotic chord progression transform it into high drama.
That would pretty much describe the songwriter as well, who rose from the depths of folk history to the international stage in the past five years.
The living embodiment of traditional Cuban music, at 93 years of age Repilado led his eight-piece group on Saturday night in a world music double bill that also included South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Portland Art Museum’s Grand Ballroom.
From a strictly musical point of view, Repilado’s performance was shaky, especially at the beginning. Although his voice remains a strong and expressive baritone, his instrumental contribution on the armonico, a hybrid guitar he invented in the 1930s was a limping, often discordant ghost of his formerly supple fretwork.
But Repilado retained his charismatic appeal even as his dexterity and hearing failed him.
Musically, his performance was saved by three clarinetists and the strength of his other musicians.
Now comes the surprise, Repilado announced in Spanish after a series of songs whose sweetly nostalgic harmonies and stately gait were often marred by his intonation and timing problems, including a danza from the nineteenth century and the bolero Mi Linda Guajira.
Two clarinetists then appeared, playing as they strolled through the audience. Joined later by a third on bass clarinet, their mellow, woody sonorities added the color and depth needed to carry the star.
Reaching their peak on the classic bolero, El Dia Que Me Quieras, the woodwinds’ vibrant melody and counterpoint passages were embellished by smoothly choreographed dance moves that echoed the rhythmic sureness they added to the group.
Choreography is half the appeal of the 10-man Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who burst onto the world stage with Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986. Their elaborate high kicks, hand gestures and other synchronized moves delighted the crowd, while their deep three-part harmonies pumped like a single breath.
They too received an unbridled standing ovation. While the South Africans provided the most polished entertainment, however, Repilado’s reception showed that the audience had come not just for music but to pay homage to the man and the culture he represents miraculously still vital after all the years.