Travel in Latin America
A vivid account of Carnaval in Montevideo, Uruguay and the importance of Candombe music as a force of revolution and social unity in Uruguayan culture. Montevideo, Uruguay - It is the first night of the Llamadas or “Calls” - the parade of drum batteries and costumed dancers that is the signature spectacle of Uruguayan Carnaval. But the sky is bulging with grey-muscled clouds and rain threatens to soak the historic black neighbourhood of Barrio Sur, which has been readied with flood lights, bandstands and television cameras. If rain falls the event will be cancelled. Hide drums don’t boom when they’re wet and without the boom of drums there is no Carnaval.
Ibero-American Capital of Carnaval
When it comes to Carnaval most people think of Rio, but this is the second straight year that Montevideo has been elected the Ibero-American capital of Carnaval for the magnitude of it’s festivities. From the end of January to the beginning of March there are nightly performances of traditional Uruguayan theatre groups such as murgas, parodistas, humoristas, lubolos and revistas; and yet the undeniable essence of Carnaval in Uruguay is Candombe, an infectious African drum rhythm that emerged out of Montevideo’s black slave districts in the seventeenth century. In September of last year, Candombe was declared a member of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO for being “a source of pride and a symbol of the identity of communities of African descent in Montevideo.”
Roots of Candombe
Interestingly, Candombe’s history is inextricably linked to that of Tango, the more widely known music and dance of the Rio de la Plata region. The word “Tango” is believed to be of Bantú African origin and was originally pronounced “Tangó”, with an accent on the second syllable. Tangós were the places where slaves gathered at night to play their drums and dance - the only means they had to regain a lost heritage and a stolen dignity. As slavery came to an end in the nineteenth century, Tangós became popular hang-outs for not just blacks, but Italians, Spaniards, French and all manner of the immigrant and working classes. In Buenos Aires and Montevideo, various forms of Tango evolved as the originally African drum rhythms were played on European instruments and mixed with Cuban Habaneras, Spanish Fandango and Italian folk songs.
Candombe remained closer to its Bantú roots. Unlike Tango, its sound comes solely from percussion. Aside from occasional maracas, marimbas, animal jaw bones and sticks, the sound of Candombe is that of drums. A lot of drums. To play traditional Candombe one needs a full cuerda of tambors - forty to sixty drums ranging in size from a small powder keg to a large wine barrel. They are arranged in groups of three from the smallest, Chico, to medium Repique and largest Piano. The drums are played with one hand and a stick used to strike notes on the edge of the hide as well as the wooden hull of the drum itself.