Anyone who spends time in Uruguay, especially if you are wandering around Montevideo just after dark, should keep your ears open for the sound of candombe. The drum-heavy music is native to Uruguay.
You’ll see groups of drummers processing down the street accompanied by dancers at the head of the procession. Neighbours hang out on their balconies watching. Crowds gather to watch and follow along. Traffic will stop to let the drummers slowly cross the street.
The drummers play three sized drums — the piano, repique and chico — and the rhythm ta ta ta ta-ta being played is known as candombe (can-DOM-bay).
The origins of candombe
Montevideo was a major slave-trade port in the past (as was Buenos Aires). The first African slaves arrived in 1750, and large numbers of Africans were trafficked here for the next 60 years by the English and the Spanish. Slavery was abolished in 1846 at which time all men received the right to vote, all men regardless of race (note, not women).
While their culture was repressed by the Spanish, the Africans and their descendants who stayed in Montevideo communicated with each other through drumming and this has become a major part of Montevideo popular culture, influencing music and dance.
The most well-known drumming patterns are named after age-old families, the Alsinas and the Cuareim, from the Barrio Sur and Palermo neighbourhoods – the former slave district of Montevideo.
Many afro-uruguayans, or afro-descendientes as they are known locally, still live in these two neighbourhoods. Almost 10% of Uruguayans claim African heritage according to the 2011 census.
Candombe is ubiquitous in Uruguay today
Though it was frowned upon a century ago, nowadays candombe is celebrated as an essential part of Uruguayan culture and society.
Candombe is part of popular music with many of Uruguay’s most famous artists such as Jaime Roos and Mateo using candombe as an essential part of their music. Others like Diego Janssen mix candombe with other rhythms like jazz or blues to make something new but characteristically Uruguayan.
In Montevideo every neighbourhood has its comparsas, as troupes made up of drummers are known. Even towns in the countryside have comparsas. So nowadays they are made up of people from all backgrounds, ages and social classes.
In fact candombe was designated part of world cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009.
You can check out comparsa street rehearsals almost any day of the year, outside of carnival, but it is during Carnival when you’ll get to see the comparsas in their full regalia. The Llamadas, a two-night procession in February which brings together a hundred of the best groups, are the most exciting part of carnival in Montevideo today.
Tango, dulce de leche and mate are claimed by other South American nations, but candombe is quintessentially Uruguayan. Even Mick Jagger when he came to Montevideo ended up in Barrio Sur listening to candombe.
Want to check out a candombe rehearsal when you’re in Montevideo? The Guru guides you on where to go and what to do.
Want to see live music when you are in Uruguay?
Montevideo has an amazing live music scene, incredible for a city of 1.5 million. But it’s not easy to find good information to be able to make a choice, especially if you are unfamiliar with the bands and don’t speak the lingo.
The Guru’Guay Guide to Montevideo has four pages of recommended bands to see live (in 8 genres – tango, carnival fusion, candombe, percussion, Latin, rock and pop, folk and roots and instrumental) and four pages on live music venues, including instructions on how to contact the venues, make reservations in Spanish etc. Live Montevideo like a local. Get The Guru’Guay Guide right now.
Plus write to the Guru at the Guru’Guay Facebook page and she’ll post recommendations for you.
Cover photo by Jimmy Baikovicius