En español | It’s Sunday afternoon in a Montevideo working-class barrio. Eighty musicians and dancers march down the street in step with the pulsating drums. Percussionists rap out a sophisticated beat on the drum sides; others answer with a counter-rhythm on the drumheads. In front, female dancers wildly shake their hips in unison.
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While beaches, bargain leather goods, and historic buildings may draw some tourists to Uruguay, this candombe music—along with Candomblé, the worship from which it derived—is perhaps one of the country’s most compelling attractions. The Fuerza Candombera troupe performing in the Montevideo barrio is one of dozens of neighborhood comparsas (clubs) playing the African-based music popular throughout the country.
Uruguay’s Candomblé began among African slaves, first brought by Spaniards in 1750. The Africans retained their belief in their orishas (gods) by matching them to Catholic saints. The priests would see the slaves praying to a saint, while they were secretly practicing their African religion. Candombe music originated with the drumming, singing, and dancing that accompanied Candomblé ceremonies. Later, candombe music was performed at family parties and the annual Carnival.
The ceremonies and music continue today and are just part of what Uruguay offers visitors who want to learn the unique history and cultural contributions of its black population.
“In the early years, candombe was played exclusively by blacks,” says Alejandro Prieto, a drummer and drum maker. “This expressed their rage.” Uruguay’s white elite initially shunned and even banned the African music, considering it a threat to public morals and sometimes punishing participants harshly. Afro-Uruguayans—who now account for 189,000 of the country’s 3.4 million people—faced discrimination on all levels: social, political, and cultural.
“A lot of Uruguayans saw candombe as a music of poor people, or barefoot people and children begging in the streets,” says candombe musician Eduardo Da Luz. “It took a long time to win acceptance here.”
The music became widely popular in the late 1960s, when musicians fused it with canto popular, a folk style featuring singers and guitars. During Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1972 to 1984), candombe became the music of political resistance. “With time,” says Prieto, “white people became interested and the doors opened. Now there is no race, no class, no gender in playing candombe.”
In fact, today it is Uruguay’s national music, along with la murga and tango.
The best time to experience candombe is during Carnival, which usually begins in late January or early February and lasts more than a month.
Candomblé ceremonies also continue, commonly in homes that double as churches. On the day the Fuerza Candombera group performed in Montevideo, residents also lit candles and made offerings in informal churches. Some aspects of the worship remain secret. But no one can miss the historic drum beat.
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