Uruguay: Candombe

Uruguay: Candombe

Today, my co-teacher handed me a drum.

And it was a big one (el tambor piano).

 She had invited me to one of her classes in the liceo (secondary school) for a charla distendida, a relaxed discussion on music. She wants her students to practice their English pronunciation.

But before we could talk much about modern Uruguayan music, our students were listos, ready to rave about one genre in particular: el candombe. You will find a definition in Spanish and an English translation below.

A translation:

 candombe: masculine noun

1 A folkloric dance from the River Plate region following the beat of drums, having dancers slide their feet in short, lively steps. Candombe has its origins in the traditions of African slaves brought to the region during the process of colonization: Candombe is a characteristic dance of the holiday Carnaval, especially in Montevideo.

2 Music for candombe dance.

If you’d like to see some candombe groovin’, click here.

This is one thing about Uruguay que constantemente me choca, that keeps surprising me: it’s common to embrace the traditions of African slaves, but their descendants aren’t visible in the main stream. Or even when walking down your average street, be it in Fray Bentos or Montevideo — the small town and capital city I’ve lived. You’ll notice that most people are white-presenting.

As touched on in this article, Uruguay shares much in common with Italy. The lack of visibility of African (and, not to mention, indigenous) descendants is largely attributed to Italians and other Europeans immigrating to the River Plate region in the early 20th century. And of course, that lack is also to be attributed to the shadows of history – shadows cast by colonizers’ twisted concepts of light. As Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano describes, dazzling and destroying with words, indigenous and African populations were “borradas del planeta por obra y gracia de las arms de fuego y los microbios.” Wiped off this Earth by weapons and germs.

But this is why I’m confused here, looking to flabbergasted friends to laugh and ask, “What even is Uruguay?” We talk about race relations in the States and feel them. We see them daily, both in real life and in the media. If you don’t, you’re probably avoiding them.

But in Uruguay, it’s this bizarre recognition, through both music and dance, of the unrecognized – of peoples so marginalized they were pushed off. All of this underlines a statistic Galeano highlighted in the same work that holds the quote above, Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Almost 50 years ago, a poll in Paraguay found that “De cada diez paraguayos, ocho creen que ‘los indios son como animales’…Sin embargo, casi todos los paraguayos tienen sangre indígena, y el Paraguay no se cansa de componer canciones, poemas y discursos en homenaje al ‘alma guaraní’”.

That, in the early ‘70s, eight out of ten Paraguayans reported believing the indigenous (guaraní) peoples were “like animals.” However, almost all Paraguayans have indigenous blood, and the country constantly produces music, poetry, and speeches honoring the “guaraní soul”.

Now, I know that, contrary to popular opinion, Paraguay is not Uruguay. And while this marginalization of indigenous peoples in Paraguay abhors, there’s still a visible presence. We humans are known to persecute peoples and groups that represent the parts inside of us we most fear, anyway. That’s nothing new, lamentablemente.

But the embrace here in Uruguay – the unsettling homage to indigenous and African customs – parece a un homenaje al fantasma, el que nos toca a todos, pero sin dejar una huella.

Unfortunately, in class, we didn’t get this deep into analysis. But I wonder how much depth there is to go into – if there’s more than just a fascination with a false parent, an exoticization of someone you never knew.

In a future article, we investigate the modern Uruguayan music scene, as well as its influences (e.g. candombe). An interview on that one, too.

Sarah Simon is a regular Slide Night contributor and currently based in Uruguay on a Fulbright scholarship. See more of her writing here.

Sarah’s book, core collection: poems about eating disorders is published by Adelaide Books. Find Sarah on Instagram and follow #uruguayumbrage for more.