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Compay Segundo, Chan Chan. Four chords and four towns

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[Monday Note no. 137] Buena Vista Social Club is a documentary film shot by Wim Wenders in 1999. The film follows the album of the same name by two years and aims to promote the music of some aged Cuban musicians brought back to the public eye by guitarist Ry Cooder. Among them is guitarist and singer Compay Segundo, who performs as Chan Chan.

Buena Vista Social Club is a journey into the Cuba of the 1990s but also into the music of this land. The musicians rediscovered by Ry Cooder talk about their past, while the images shot in Havana by Wim Wenders portray a city that seems crystallised in its past.

Chan Chan's harmony is very minimal, the piece runs on four repeating chords, always the same: Dm, F, Gm and A. The piece thus has a pure strophic form, a bit like what happens in blues and other forms of popular music. 

On these chords, the melody is sung in two voices. Here is the score of the main motif of the song.

Compay Segundo - Chan Chan

In Chan Chan there is room for improvisation, sometimes between the sung verses the instruments intervene with short solos. The result is a 'back-and-forth' between sung and instrumental parts.

Thanks to this alternation, the piece is not boring, even if it only runs on a few bars that are always the same. This procedure is typical of Cuban music, in which the soloist is often answered by the choir or by instruments, as in this case.

The lyrics are minimal, Chan Chan is a travel song, like many Central American songs. Another example of this sub-genre is the famous Guantanamera. Here is the main verse:

De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané,

Llego a Cueto, voy para Mayarí

From Alto Cedro I go towards Marcané

I arrive in Cueto and go to Mayarí

This is the main chorus of the song. Alto Cedro, Marcané, Cueto and Mayarí are four localities in the south of the island of Cuba, the song does not explain who the traveller is or his purpose. This travelling diary is accompanied by a few phrases that speak of love, without explaining much about it either.

This simplicity leaves the lyrics open to multiple interpretations, in this Chan Chan reminds of a Romancero, the Spanish medieval poem. The protagonist of the song wanders between these four cities, apparently without rest, just like the one who plays this song and moves over four repeating chords.

Buena Vista Social Club is in many ways a disappointing film, not telling us much about Cuba or its music. Guitarist Ry Cooder's interventions with his slide guitar often do not add much to the music, they are in fact annoying and monotonous.

However, this great commercial idea had the merit of bringing to the world stage a group of elderly musicians, among them Compay Segundo with his song Chan Chan, a small masterpiece for its lyrics and music.

Until next Monday!

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