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Con Mucho Estimado -- With Much Respect

Habanos S.A., the global distribution organization for Cuban cigars, recently gave Cuban musical great Compay Segundo a special humidor full of 156 Montecristo No. 3 s during a birthday celebration in late November at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Although they were apparently just bog standard Monte petite coronas, the cigars beared labels with el viejo's mug -- Cheshire cat grin and white hat in all.

According to Habanos, only 1,000 of the bands (cigar bands, that is, not musical groups) were produced, and all went out during Segundo's 94th birthday bash. The organization went on to say that they gave the cigars to Segundo for two reasons:

Compay Segundo confesses his longtime faithfulness to the brand of Montecristo not only as a smoker but also as a roller. He rolled the brand for more than 20 years in the Upmann factory at Calle Amistad 104 in Havana.

Montecristo is the best-selling cuban cigars brand in the world, and for the first time, a well-known celebrity has his face printed on the Montecristo band.

I think that the face of Compay is a huge improvement over the normal white-and-brown band of Montecristo, and I would love to see a few boxes go my way, or better, be offered to the world at large. However, I am not sure about the reasons stated for the special cigars' production -- particularly reason No. 1.

About five years ago, I attended a private dinner for about two dozen cigar lovers, hosted by the affable Carlos Villota, the general manager of the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana. After plenty of good wine and food as well as super cigars, Segundo turned up for a few serenades to end the evening. He was with his beautiful young wife as well as other family members. This was before the Buena Vista Social Club became a smash success and el Viejo started charging big bucks for appearances. (Now, he's probably on a plane going to a gig somewhere around the world instead of hanging out in Havana and rubbing shoulders with riffraff, cigar junkies like myself. But who can begrudge the guy? He's done more for Cuban music and Cuba's reputation around the world than anyone I can think of in recent years.)

One down, 155 to go.

At the end of the short set, we all lit up cigars and Compay decided that we should take a photograph together with all the dinner guests. An empty cigar roller's table was outside the dining room, and he insisted that we all huddle around him for the shot as he sat at the table (I am still waiting for a copy of the shot from Villota, now that I think of it.)

After the pictures, Compay laughed and said how he was a terrible roller back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "I had been rolling cigars at Partagas," he said. "And I was finally fired by that bastard Ramon Cifuentes (then the owner of the factory.) He was a tough son of a bitch, but if it wasn't for him, I would have never become a full-time musician."

Maybe Segundo worked for Menendez, Garcia y Cia. before Partagas? A quick call to Benjamin Menendez, whose family produced Montecristo cigars before the revolution, found that Menendez doubted the roller turned musician ever stepped foot in his family's factory.

Maybe there's some confusion over the facts, either on my part, Segundo's part or Habanos's part. Regardless, if anyone deserves his own special label and a special gift for all he has done for one of my favorite countries to visit, it's Segundo.

Sunday, May 27, 2001

Con Mucho Estimado -- With Much Respect