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Do the Chan Chan

January 30, 2010

Thanks to Buena Vista Social Club, Cuba and Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan are inextricably linked. It might as well be the country’s national anthem.

In Cuban musical terms, Chan Chan is known as a son, a style of that originated in Cuba and gained worldwide popularity in the 1930s. Sones combine elements of the Spanish guitar with African rhythms. In New York City, the son Cubano mixed with other musical styles to influence the creation of salsa music.

Cuban composer and guitarist Compay Segundo (born Francisco Repilado, 1907-2003) is the late statesman of Afro-Cuban music.  His nickname comes from the Cuban slang for “compadre” and his sweet “second voice,” or bass harmony vocals. His best known song, Chan Chan, was actually one of his last compositions , written in 1987. Of it, he said:

I didn’t compose Chan Chan.  I dreamt it. I dream with music.  Sometimes I wake up with a melody in my head.  I hear the instruments very clearly.  I look out of my balcony and see no one, but I can hear it as if the instruments were playing in the street.  I do not know what it is.

One day I woke up with those four little notes.  I put lyrics to it according to a tale I heard when I was a child: Juanica y Chan Chan.  And now, you see, they sing it all over the world.  Maybe is magic or something like that, I do not know.”

As a young man, Compay earned a living by working in the tobacco fields and by cutting hair; at night, he’d frequent the local hotspots. He composed his first song at the age of 15, and by his 20s and 30s, he was playing with some of the best bands of the era. In his  PBS interview, when asked to describe the Cuban music scene of the 1930s and 1940s, he explained:

“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 hear 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 the 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 and 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 classy, the party would end and the dresses would still be clean. That’s the difference between today and yesterday.”

I’ll do the Chan Chan, old school.

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