^IN URUGUAY, THE MUSIC KNOWN AS 'CANDOMBE' UNITES BLACK AND
^By ZOLTAN ISTVAN@<
^National Geographic Channel@<
^c.2003 National Geographic Channel@<
^(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)@<
A warm night breeze floats through a poor, mixed-race neighborhood
colonial-era houses in Montevideo, Uruguay _ and carries the music of
On Peatonal Curuguaty Street, hundreds of young people gather
drummers pounding out the scorching rhythms of the traditional music
Soon dancers surround the drummers and, then, spontaneously, the
becomes a carnival parade, snaking through the streets. As drummers and
dancers move from block to block, more Montevideans pour out and join
The so-called Sunday night jam is the sight and sound of a new
The crowd includes whites and blacks _ an integration almost unheard-of
Like reggae in Jamaica, candombe energizes the movement to bring
recognition and a voice to the Afro-Uruguayans, as the descendants of
slaves call themselves. But this street music has become a cultural
outpouring that black and white Uruguayans now embrace as their
"Candombe has always been a celebration of the black spirit," says
Waldemar Silva, a director of candombe theater shows during
Carnival and throughout the year. "When that spirit was taken from
to Uruguay, it became a tool for change and for freedom."
Candombe, traditionally played on a tambor-like drum, springs from
music, dance and drama of Central and West Africa, researchers say.
Candombe's origins still resonate in certain rhythms and dance
"Candombe is very interactive," says Lyneise Williams, a doctoral
candidate at Yale University writing a thesis is on the Uruguayan
Pedro Figari, who frequently painted candombe scenes.
"There is drumming, dances and performances with specific
As the drummers march down the street they will occasionally put down
instruments and act out scenes. Spectators will also join in, playing
role of a certain character."
The slave trade shipped millions of Africans to the Americas.
the 18th and 19th century, slaves from Argentina and Brazil were
to Uruguay. They brought their candombe with them.
During the 19th century, colonialists tried to ban candombe but the
slaves took it underground. The outlaw music, practiced in secret, came
Today the Afro-Uruguayans number around 100,000, or about 6 percent
the population. Last year a U.S. State Department report on human
Uruguay pointed out that on average they earn less than 60 percent of
median income of the white population.
During the past 30 years, candombe has come into the mainstream.
an 11-year military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973 TO 1984,
interest in the music intensified. Its rhythm and rebelliousness
white musicians and, with the addition of Spanish elements, it became
"Candombe differs from one black neighborhood to another," says
Williams. "(Those local forms) are in turn quite different from the
popularized fusion candombe that is Uruguay's export."
"Candombe has grown much larger than anyone ever thought it would,"
says Lagrima Rios, president of Mundo Afro, a black cultural and
organization. "At Mundo Afro we're thrilled with its growth since
is still strongly associated with the Afro-Uruguayan cause for racial
However, "it's not like there's enormous amounts of discrimination
going on against Afro-Uruguayans," says Alicia Garcia Suarez, a
for GAMA, a black women's organization.
"It's just the small things _ like many black women continue to be
maids for white people and their businesses because it's too difficult
get jobs doing something else. It's the same kind of work that black
have been doing for nearly three centuries. It's time for a change."
To its adherents, candombe symbolizes the imagination, energy and
passion of a people poised for change.
Candombe, on the tambor and on contemporary instruments, reigns at
Carnival and in everyday celebrations like birthdays. Clubs and bars
the popular El Pony Pisador feature it. Street performers play it for
tourists in the Plaza Independencia. The music also goes along when
protesters rally in front of Montevideo's police headquarters.
Mundo Afro holds weekly classes on instruction in candombe drumming
that blacks and whites attend.
"The message is always the same," says Luis Julio Acuna, who works
the Mundo Afro Media Center. "We try to teach the basics of the music
rhythm. But we also remind students of candombe's history and its use
tool to end racial injustice."
On Peatonal Curuguaty Street, after the Sunday night jam moves on,
candombe spirit lingers in the air.