Rhythm Nation

by | Dec 28, 2003

The drums of Montevideo. Photo by George Reid Andrews.

The scene is exhilarating, even intoxicating. A drum corps sixty strong, we are marching through the Montevideo night, pounding out the African rhythms of candombe. Tonight is the Llamadas, the annual parade of the African-inspired Carnaval comparsas (drum and marching corps), and one of the most characteristic and defining features of Montevidean popular culture. Twenty thousand people line the parade route in the historic Barrio Sur, clapping, cheering, and dancing to the thundering rhythms laid down by Serenata Africana, Yambo Kenia, Senegal, Elumbé, and some 30 other groups.

But amidst all the alegría, one cannot help noting an apparent paradox. The drums are African, the rhythms are African, the names of the groups are African, but most of the performers—drummers, dancers, flag carriers, and others—are white! Some groups are entirely white, most are majority white; only a handful are majority Afro-Uruguayan.

How can this be? How did an African-based cultural form come to be practiced and populated mainly by white people? And how has the capital of a country that has historically prided itself on its European heritage and traditions—remember when Uruguay used to bill itself as the Switzerland of South America?—come to embrace an African-based musical form, candombe, as a core element of its cultural identity?

In a modern urban society, in which people live ever more isolated, enclosed, and cut off from each other in apartments and suburbs, spending more time with their televisions and computers than with fellow human beings, the comparsas provide a way for Montevideans to reconnect to each other, to their history, and to the public life of the street.

Constructing Candombe

I arrived in Montevideo in July 2001 to research the history of the city’s black political and cultural organizations. With a population that today is more than 90 percent white, Uruguay would not seem to be the most promising venue for such a project. But in fact the country, and Montevideo in particular, have a rich history of black mobilization, expressed in one of the most active black presses anywhere in Latin America (at least 25 titles from the 1870s to the present, including the longest-running black newspaper in Latin America: Nuestra Raza, 1933-48); numerous social clubs and civic organizations; the Partido Autóctono Negro (1936-44), one of only three black political parties in the region (the other two were in Brazil and Cuba); and, currently, one of the leading black civil rights organizations in Latin America, Mundo Afro, founded in 1989.

Yet another form of black organization, I knew before coming to Montevideo, were the Carnaval comparsas. Knowing their African names, and their historical roots in the mutual aid societies created by free and slave Africans in the early 1800s, I had simply assumed that the comparsas were Afro-Uruguayan in composition. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that in fact they were majority white. Inevitably, the story of how, when, and why historically-black community organizations evolved into a racially integrated, majority-white cultural movement became a central part of my research.

Montevideo has always been defined by its relationship to the sea—or more precisely, to the chocolate-colored waters of the Río de la Plata. Especially in summer months, residents flock to the beaches and parks along the handsome Rambla, a highway and pedestrian walkway that extends from downtown Ciudad Vieja 12 miles to the eastern city limits, in the affluent suburb of Carrasco. Middle-class suburban sprawl continues 20-30 miles further east along the coast, through the beach communities of Shangrilá, Atlántida, and others.

With over a million inhabitants, today’s Montevideo bears little resemblance to the modest (less than 10,000 people) imperial outpost of 1800. Despite its small size, however, colonial-period Montevideo was a significant port of destination in the Atlantic slave trade. By 1800 the population of Uruguay was an estimated one-quarter black and mulatto; and as in Buenos Aires, Havana, Cartagena, and other Latin American cities, slave and free Africans living in Montevideo created mutual aid societies organized around the African ethnic origins of their members. These “African societies” or “African nations,” as they were called, provided a site for religious ceremonies, social and cultural events, and an institutional means for members to lobby national and city authorities and protest abuses by masters (in the case of slaves), employers (in the case of free Africans), the police, and other oppressors.

Most of the African societies built their headquarters—small shacks or houses—near the beaches of the Barrio Sur, just outside the walls of the Ciudad Vieja. There their members would gather on religious and national holidays to play and sing the music, and dance the dances, of their homelands in the Congo, Angola, West Africa, and Mozambique. By the mid-1800s, these various types of African music were starting to meld together to form candombe, a pan-African music specific to Montevideo (and to Buenos Aires, its neighbor across the Río de la Plata).

That process of melding was further accelerated by Uruguayan musicians, both white and black, who during the second half of the 1800s incorporated European instruments—violins, guitars, trumpets—into the music. A number of these musicians were Afro-Uruguayans who had served in military bands and who, in addition to string and wind instruments, also introduced military forms of drumming and marching into candombe.

The result, during the last decades of the 1800s, was the displacement of the African national societies (which, as their members died of old age, were gradually disappearing) by a new musical and organizational form: the Carnaval comparsa. The first comparsas—La Raza Africana, Los Negros Orientales—were established by Afro-Uruguayans in the 1860s; then in 1874, a group of upper-class young white men founded Los Negros Lubolos, a black-face comparsa named in homage to one of the African national societies. Painting their faces with burnt cork, and striving to produce a simulacrum of Afro-Uruguayan candombe, Los Negros Lubolos were a smash hit at that year’s Carnaval and paved the way for the entry of Euro-Uruguayans into the world of candombe. Indeed, to this day in Montevideo a white person who takes up the drums and joins a Carnaval comparsa is known as a negro lubolo, and the comparsas are known officially as the “agrupaciones de negros y lubolos”—literally, organizations composed of blacks and of whites who parade as blacks.

Over the course of the 1900s the ranks of the negros lubolos have grown exponentially. Between 1870 and 1930 the city more than quadrupled in size, from 125,000 inhabitants to 570,000, mainly as a result of European immigration. Many of those immigrants took up residence in the working-class neighborhoods of the Barrio Sur, Palermo, and Cordón, living in crowded conventillos (tenement slums) alongside Afro-Uruguayans; and in the conventillos, as part of the process of becoming Uruguayan, they and their children learned to play candombe and formed their own new comparsas.

Unlike the upper-class white comparsas of the late 1800s, these early-twentieth-century groups were racially integrated, drawing on the racially mixed populations of the conventillos. Thus the premier comparsa of the 1900-1930 period, Esclavos de Nyanza, based in the La Facala conventillo in Palermo, was mainly white but included a few black members as well. The Esclavos’ principal competitor, the Libertadores de Africa, was more thoroughly integrated, including its directors. The comparsa was founded in 1921 by Angel Genaro Huesca and Francisco Airaldi, whose names strongly suggest immigrant origins, and its drum corps was led by famed Afro-Uruguayan soccer star José Leandro Andrade. Other groups, such as Lanceros Africanos and Pobres Negros Cubanos, were also racially mixed.

Thus by the early 1900s, the racial integration characteristic of the conventillos was equally characteristic of the comparsas; and just as whites had entered the world of candombe, so had candombe entered the white world. In a process analogous to that experienced by the tango in Buenos Aires, samba in Rio de Janeiro, rumba and son in Havana, and of course jazz in Chicago and New York, by the 1920s and 30s Euro-Uruguayans were embracing candombe as one of the city’s defining cultural creations. “The drum is music,” proclaimed the mass-circulation photo magazine Mundo Uruguayo in 1935. “It came from the jungle and took over the city, just like the guitar of the country campfires. And like the guitar, we made it our national instrument.”

Almost seventy years later, in 2002, the newspaper La República reiterated the same theme. Candombe and the comparsas, once “the ancestral ritual of the black race, [are] today the grand ritual of an entire people, regardless of color, religion, social class, or cultural differences. Tonight [at the Llamadas] the drums will call and a whole people will come to dance and renew their commitment to a tradition rooted in the very foundations of our nationality.”

As that last quotation suggests, by the end of the 1900s Uruguayans’ attachment to candombe was perhaps deeper than ever before, as I had ample opportunity to see while living in Montevideo. During the 1990s the city had been swept by a “fever” of drumming, an “epidemic” of drumming, in the words of people I interviewed. Thousands of whites bought drums, enrolled in courses to learn how to play them, and joined comparsas. The sounds of African drumming, which for most of the century had been heard mainly in the center-city working-class neighborhoods, had now spread along the coast to the middle-class areas of Pocitos, Buceo, and Malvín.

Equally striking, for the first time drumming broke through longstanding gender barriers. Though individual women had occasionally drummed in comparsas, and one (“Cuca”—I have been unable to recover her real name) had actually led a drum corps in the early 1970s, all through the 1800s and 1900s drumming was an emphatically male enterprise. Now, however, in the last ten years, women have been entering the drumming classes and learning to play. The group in which I took part was about 10 percent female; and one of the features of the 2002 Carnaval shows at the municipal Teatro del Verano was an accomplished drum corps of 30-40 young women.

Veteran candomberos were puzzled and a bit nonplussed by this surge of interest, both male and female, in drumming and candombe. Some saw it as a positive development, not least because it offered new sources of livelihood to drum makers, drumming instructors, and musicians hired to play at parties and public functions. Others worried, however, that the presence of so many novice, inexperienced drummers was lowering the quality of the music played by the city’s comparsas. The only way to learn candombe, they said, was through long apprenticeship, ideally beginning in childhood, in the world of the comparsas.

Up through the 1970s that apprenticeship took place in the conventillos. But as part of its program of urban renewal, the military dictatorship of those years tore down a number of the tenements, including some that had housed the most famous and historic comparsas: e.g., the Mediomundo conventillo, home of Morenada; the Barrio Reus complex, also known as Ansina, home to the Libertadores de Africa (1921-1940s) and then Fantasía Negra (1953-75); the Charrúa and Gaboto conventillos in Cordón; and others. Even the best of the drumming schools were no substitute for the training imparted in those cradles of candombe.

I Was a Negro Lubolo

Curious to find out why white drummers were pouring into the comparsas, I decided to become one of them. I bought a drum, enrolled in “percussion classes” at Mundo Afro, the black civil rights organization, practiced with its comparsa from November through February, and then had the unforgettable experience of parading in the 2002 Llamadas. While going through this course of training, and also hanging out at the practices and parades of other comparsas, I started to get some insight into why Euro-Uruguayans have embraced a musical and cultural form seemingly remote from their ethnic roots and traditions.

The first reason is that, as the above brief history of candombe suggests, the music is in fact not remote from Euro-Uruguayan roots and traditions. As we have seen, over the course of the 1800s and 1900s the music and dances of the African nations were extensively reworked and transformed into an African-based but emphatically Uruguayan musical form. As composers, musicians, singers, and comparsa directors, whites were full-fledged participants in that process of transformation, working alongside their black counterparts; the result is a music that “belongs” to white Montevideans as much as to black ones.

A second reason is that candombe is a music that it is easy to get excited about. As several of my informants said, “when you hear that rhythm, you can’t sit still.” And the experience of playing in a candombe drum corps is even more intense, and intensely pleasurable, than the experience of listening. Several drummers spoke to me of feeling “transported” by the waves of rhythm; and indeed that perfectly captures the feeling one has. Digging deep down into a powerful funk groove, you are simultaneously lifted high, into something approaching trance, where you catch some small glimpse of the rhythmic revelation that is at the heart of all African-based musics.

And finally the third reason: as you glimpse that revelation, and as you both generate and absorb that rhythm that fills the universe, you do so as part of a larger collective. Like the African associations of the early 1800s, the comparsas are inherently social, community-building organizations. As you train, practice, and parade with your fellow drummers, inevitably you become bonded to the larger group. And that group is in turn embraced and supported by the neighborhood it represents and to which it gives voice. Wherever in the city I went to hear practice parades, local residents always turned out to clap, to dance, to greet the drummers and dancers and, perhaps most important, to greet each other.

The comparsas use the voices of the African drums to reweave and repair an urban social fabric raveled and worn by the multiple pressures of modern urban life. Indeed, as I marched with my compañeros on Sunday afternoons through the historic streets of the Ciudad Vieja, bringing the gift of candombe to festive groups of neighbors gathered on street corners or leaning out their windows, I thought more than once of how my own neighborhood in Pittsburgh would be enriched by having a comparsa. Lonjas [Drums] de Point Breeze, anyone? Long live candombe, and long live the comparsas!

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2

George Reid Andrews is UCIS Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000: Black History in Spanish America and Brazil (forthcoming this year). Research for this article was supported by the Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios Latinoamericanos at the Universidad de la República. For more on candombe, see Luis Ferreira, Los tambores del candombe (1997), Tomás Olivera Chirimini and Juan Antonio Varese, Los candombes de Reyes (2001).

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