The candombe tradition of Montevideo, Uruguay may not be as well-known as other Carnivals, but it might just be one of the most authentic.
photos and text by Nacho Hamad
Every year in Montevideo, Uruguay, the so-called Desfile de Llamadas (the Calling Parade) takes place. It is one of the highest expressions of the Candombe, the music of African roots from Uruguay (although there are variants from Argentina and Brazil that are lesser known). Declared world cultural heritage by UNESCO, candombe was born from the black slaves that lived in Montevideo, in the Sur and Palermo districts of the city. Candombe is played using three kinds of drums, called chico, repique and piano (from the highest to the deepest pitch), played using one hand and a drumstick. Before playing them, however, the drums are heated, taking out the humidity and tuning the pitch. It is for this reason that you’ll see fires burning in the streets, with the drums placed around them, as each comparsa (troupe) gets ready for the festival. The llamadas were born as a spontaneous gathering of the black communities, called to the streets by the sound of the drums. Over time, candombe comparsas, also called Lubuolas, grew in size, until the first llamadas parade was held during the carnival days in February of 1956.
The parade, which is also a competition between comparsas, takes place along the Isla de Flores street that runs through Sur and Palermo neighborhoods, where the black slave communities that had given birth to candombe used to live. Since this is just a regular street, there is not much room for big stands, so a fence is placed with some chairs behind it; although there are some corners where three is enough room to set up stands. The organization is somewhat chaotic, with no one really controlling who has a ticket and who does not. It does not really matter anyway, since behind the chairs there are so many people gathered that going to the bathroom or just getting to your chair is quite an adventure. Several houses in the neighborhood sell beer, burgers and chorizos, and you can even see people on the rooftops of the houses watching as the comparsas march on by. There is a party mood in the air, and people are very kind in general, although excessive alcohol in some cases can be inconvenient. There are even parents with children and elderly, despite all their difficulties, who go to at least see part of the show.
Although it is a competition, what you see on the faces of the comparsas is pure joy. Each troupe follows a general structure that is more or less fixed. First, big flags are waved by skilled men and women. What is most celebrated is when the banderilleros “caress” the public with the flags. Then comes a group of women dancing, followed by what is called the gramilla and mama vieja, representing the old medicine man and what is usually a heavy-set woman who always carries her hand fan. Afterwards, in come the vedettes and dancing men, dancing to the rhythm with high energy, followed by the batería, the drum core, composed by about 50 men and some women who play candombe with drums. The comparsa marches forward, but there are a few stops where the batería does variants of the candombe, and the choreography of the dancers reaches its most spectacular, with the public clapping their hands and shouting to the tops of their lungs. Close to the drums, there is the tremendous sound and a wind from their movement can be felt.
The women that dance do not follow any particular aesthetic body pattern, but joy mood and talented dancing is mandatory. The interaction of the dancers, and of the comparsa in general, with the public, is constant and very much enjoyed by everyone. When the parade ends, people gather behind the last comparsa to dance and march behind them. In the llamadas, you can see the joy and simplicity of the Uruguayan people, and how candombe has very deep roots in this country in the south of the continent.