Anyone who spends enough time strolling around Montevideo, the capital, will run into a drumming troupe on the street. Because drumming is HUGE here.
Every neighbourhood has its comparsas, as the troupes made up of drummers and dancers are known.
As you are wandering around the city, in the Old City but in any neighbourhood particularly after dark between the hours of 7pm and 10pm, keep your ears open for the sound of drumming.
The drumming rhythms played on three types of drums – the piano, repique and chico – are different from anything else you’ll hear anywhere else in the world.
Known collectively as candombe (can-DOM-bay), the most well-known drumming patterns are named after age-old families 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.) However comparsas nowadays are made up of people from all backgrounds, ages and social classes.
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.
The history behind drumming in Montevideo
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 descendents 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 Llamadas, or drumming calls, are the most exciting part of carnival in Montevideo today. Carnival is when you’ll get to see the comparsas in their full regalia.
Go see drummers while you are in Montevideo
On any night of any day of the year, you will run into a comparsa of drummers and dancers practising for the next carnival. This one I filmed on the streets of Palermo during winter time, with months to go till carnival.
La Melaza, an all-woman comparsa, is a very cool group to see, and rehearses most Sundays from about 7.30 pm. They start at the corner of Blanes and Lauro Muller streets just off Parque Rodó.
Here’s a map with days and times (add a good hour onto those times) of a bunch of comparsas. It’s in Spanish but fairly self-explanatory. They provide links to the Facebook pages of each comparsa. If you don’t read Spanish at least it’s worth checking the page to check that there are recent posts, meaning that the comparsa is active currently and therefore likely to be out rehearsing.
Comparsa rehearsal etiquette
So what happens?
At the start, a fire is started and the drum skins are warmed to tighten them. People mill around, usually buying litre bottles of beer from the closest kiosko, hanging out on the pavement, smoking.
Once the drums are ready and everyone is gathered (this takes some time, don’t go if you’re not prepared to be patient), the comparsa drummers line up, the dancers get out the front, and the drums strike up.
The comparsa will parade slowly (very slowly) down the street, usually for 8 blocks or so. Cars will stop for the parade.
Once the comparsa reaches their end point (wherever that may be), they take a break. Usually a fire is relit for the drums. Everyone gets more beer.
Twenty minutes or so later, the comparsa regroups, the drums strike up again, and everyone processes back to the starting point.
Tips to blend in
The comparsas are part of everyday life here in Uruguay. Meaning, everyone knows everyone else so they will already know that you are not part of the group.
However lots of people including neighbours love a comparsa. Buy a beer and hang out. When the procession starts, walk along the pavement by the side or at the tail of the comparsa.
Do be aware of your safety. It is not unknown in Palermo and Barrio Sur for a robbery to take place. So dress down and don’t carry anything you wouldn’t want to lose. My advice would be to blend in and enjoy the experience rather than taking photos.
Fancy going accompanied to a comparsa?
If you’d like more background or feel a little nervous going alone, a good alternative is to go to a comparsa with a local guide who can share the culture with you.
Want to plan 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 check out the Guru’s daily recommendations on the Guru’Guay Facebook page. Posted daily around midday.