Fully dressed comparsa during Las Llamadas de Otoño (the autumn calls).
It’s been close to a month since we got to Uruguay and yet, it seems like every day we are running errands related to our move. Every time we manage to finish one, two show up. Hence, I have not managed to create a lot of time, and even more importantly, space in my head to go out and shoot.
I did however, get out for a couple of hours to shoot las llamadas de otoño (the autumn ‘calls’). As if the longest carnival in the world, comprised of 40 days of performances between february and mid-march was not enough, the comparsas manage to squeeze one additional parade before the arrival of the winter.
A full candombe group, or comparsa, is comprised of la cuerda – the group of drummers, las mulatas – a group of female dancers, and some additional characters with their specific dances (La Mama Vieja (“Old Mother”), the matriarch, El Gramillero (“Medicine Man”), Mama Vieja’s husband, responsible for health and well-being and El Escobero or Escobillero (“Stick Holder”), who carried a long magical wooden stick that he uses to create new ways and possibilities for the future
Candombe is what survives of the ancestral bantu roots, brought by the black slaves arriving to el Río de la Plata. Candombe, a drum-based musical style of Uruguay, originated among the Afro-Uruguayan population of Montevideo and is based on Bantu African drumming with some European influence and touches of Tango. The music of candombe is performed by a group of drummers. The barrel-shaped drums, or tamboriles, have specific names according to their size and function: chico (small, high timbre, marks the tempo), repique (medium, syncopation and improvisation) and piano (large, low timbre, melody).
While black culture was quickly repressed, to a big extent by the Montevideo establishment who considered the music and danced immoral, banning and harshly punishing those who performed it, the need of expression and liberation continued through the tambor. From this period of original celebrations in Uruguay, only the musical gathering is retained today, and find their principal manifestation in the “llamadas” of Barrio Sur and Palermo [+]. In Uruguay, people of African descent accounted for about half the population two centuries ago; they now number about 189,000 in a nation of 3.2 million [!].
Today, Candombe is performed regularly in the streets of Montevideo’s central neighbourhoods on Sunday evenings as well as on many other occasions, and massively on January 6, December 25 and January 1. During Uruguay’s Carnival period, all the comparsas, of which there are 80 or 90 in existence, participate in a massive Carnival parade called Las Llamadas (“calls”) and vie against each other in official competitions in the Teatro de Verano theatre. During Las Llamadas, members of the comparsa often wear costumes that reflect the music’s historical roots in the slave trade, such as sun hats and black face-paint. The monetary prizes are modest; more important aspects include enjoyment, the fostering of a sense of pride and the winning of respect from peers.
To see more of my Uruguay work, click here.
–El Toque de Camdombe.
[+] Excerpts of the paper presented in August 1994, in Salvador, Bahia, at the Second International Congress of Afro-American Cultures by Aglimira “La Negra” Villalba
[!] Excerpts from L.A. Times article by Sebastian Rotella