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Uruguay: Spirit of Afro Resistance Alive in Candombe PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 February 2008 04:27

In the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, Afro-Uruguayans celebrate an often-ignored part of their history - Candombe and resistance. For more than 200 years Afro descendants have maintained the tradition of Candombe, a rhythm that traveled from Africa to Uruguay with African slaves. The music carries centuries of resistance and liberation.

The word Candombe literally means "place and dance of Africans." The musical tradition evolved during the colonial area. Africans brought to Uruguay for slave labor used the rhythm of the tambores, or drums, to communicate with each other and defy colonialists.

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Isla de Flores Comparsa in Barrio Sur

Today the music thrives in Montevideo's working class neighborhoods, where African descendants have kept alive the tradition of the Llamadas, parades where Candombe is played. Candombe drummer Mitchel Navos says that Candombe didn't originate in Africa, but with Afro-descendants in Montevideo. "Candombe is specifically from Montevideo. Candombe like Montevideo's Candombe doesn't exist in any other part of the world." He also asserts that Candombe's spirit has been passed down for generations despite a historical void surrounding the music's origins.

Origins of Candombe

Montevideo's colonial district is the birthplace of Uruguay's Candombe music. Africans from the Southern and Western regions (Bantú regions which include Congo, Angola and Mozambique) were brought to Uruguay and Argentina through the slave trade beginning in 1750. "Africans arriving from the Bantú region brought with them the Candombe rhythm," explains Navos. "Being from different nations and regions, they didn't have the possibility of communicating through language."

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In whatever time their white masters allowed, slaves communicated through drums and dance. The first Llamadas took place at this time. Some historians assert that the word Llamadas - "parade of calls," refers to the drums Africans played to call out to each other in their homes. Each tribe had a particular rhythm that could be identified from afar.

Within these living quarters, African musicians gave birth to a rhythm and tradition which has been passed on for generations. Martin Silva is a young musician from Montevideo's Barrio Sur. His grandparents taught him the Candombe rhythm and the origins of Candombe. "Before the llamadas were held in Ansinas, which was a conventillo or a housing complex here on Isla de Flores and nearby streets. It was a huge housing complex where hundreds of families lived. The llamadas were held there, they paraded inside. It was a different kind of festivity. It's not the same as today." 

Upper class whites tried to ban Candombe gatherings in the 19th century.  One of the earliest historical documents tracing Candombe music is an 1808 police record, when citizens of Montevideo requested that these dances be severely repressed and completely prohibited. Afro descendants  took their music underground, to defy the oppressive conditions of slavery.

"We can't refer to anything before 1900 with historical certainty," explains Navos. There exists an extensive historical void regarding Candombe practices between 1800 and 1900. "What exists today is what we could hide and preserve, which has led to the transformation of Candombe in what it is today, from generation to generation," he continues.

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Troupes are made of dancers and drummers

"Barrio Sur and Palermo were where the meat curing plants were located. Many of the black slaves had to work in the meat curing plants, but also many lived in the curing plants. That's where music from Africa mixed with Catholicism." Many historians assert that the first Llamadas took place in clandestine music halls, until they went public with the abolishment of slavery in the late 19th century.  "The first Llamadas held was a procession from the Meat curing plants toward Montevideo's main cathedral, in the Old part of the city. In commemoration of Day of the Kings, they made a procession to give a tribute to the Catholic Saints of the Masters. That's when Western Traditions got mixed in. That's when the term Llamadas, or walking procession, came to be. Before it wasn't about walking in the streets, it was held in a hall or like a band performance."

Symbols of Afro descendants' painful past

The dance and music are filled with symbols of African descendants' painful past. The troupes the perform the Llamadas are called comparsas, and are made up of cuerdas (drummers) and dancers. The drummers walk very slowly, barely separating their feet as they walk. This rhythm and style of procession is meant to symbolize Afro-descendants' past and historical roots when their ancestors were made to walk with chains and shackles.

Three main characters lead the llamadas: the Mama Vieja (Grandmother), Gramillero (Old Doctor), and Escobero (Wizard).  The Gramillero walks with a cane as if he's about to fall over. The Mama Vieja carries an umbrella attending to the Grammillero. The Escobero sweeps the ground with a great baton.

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The Gramillero and Mama Vieja symbolize two key figures in Afro-Uruguayan history

Navos describes the significance of these three characters. "The Escobero, I don't know if he's a magician or wizard, he's the person in charge of taking charge of the spirit of the comparsa. The Escobero walks in front of the flags to clean the bad spirits opening the way for the comparsa." 

The Gramillero and Mama Vieja symbolize two key figures in Afro-Uruguayan history: the old doctor who uses medicinal herbs to cure and the grandmother, the matriarchal figure. Navos explains the significance of those characters. "Those characters are as important to us as our grandparents. In a family they are the roots. They are the oldest people in the comparsa. Their dance is about that. Simulating the pain in their slow dance, there's an expression of fatigue in their dance."

Candombe as a cultural tool

Some of the city's Candombe troops feature more than 50 drummers and dozens of dancers. Each neighborhood has its own rhythm and style. In Barrio Sur, where slaves took the music underground in the 19th century, new Candombe troops are emerging today.

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New Candombe troupes are emerging today.

According to Mario Suarez a young musician playing a traditional African drum in the Isla de Flores comparsa, the Llamadas is more than a performance. "The Llamadas and Candombe for the Afro descendants are a passion and a tradition. We have to maintain the tradition. The identity of the comparsa of Isla de Flores is strong, because it's part of the identity barrio Ansinas and Barrio Sur. The first Llamadas took place here in the barrio Ansinas and the barrio Sur."

Today Afro-Uruguayans number around 100,000, or about 6 percent of the population. For many Uruguayans of Afro descent, Candombe is part of everyday life and resistance in a continually discriminating society. The Llamadas ispracticed all year long, not just during Carnival. Uruguayans have also adopted the increasingly popular Candombe music as part of their national identity. Especially in the past 30 years, the music has influenced White musicians. The music was used to express resistance to the repressive regime during Uruguay's bloody military junta from 1973-1984.  Today, Candombe isn't just heard in Montevideo but has spread to Uruguay's interior and echoes in Argentina. 

"Candombe is not only a question of skin color, it's a way of thinking and being," says Diego Bonga Martinez from the Afro-cultural movement in Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires, the Llamadas have been continually repressed by police and government officials. Martinez adds, "Candombe is a cultural weapon we have used to defend ourselves with, for our culture to live on."  From the size and sound of the growing number of comparsas participating in the Llamadas in Montevideo, this tradition will be passed on for generations to come.

Photos of the Isla de Flores Comparsa in Barrio Sur by Marie Trigona.

Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and filmmaker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at mtrigona@msn.com 

 

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