Checking out authentic candombe in Uruguay, you’ll want to go to a street rehearsal. Where to go, how it works and what to do–and what not to do–once you are there

On any night of any day of the year on the moonlit streets of Montevideo, you can run into a comparsa (as troupes of candombe drummers and dancers are known) practising for the next carnival.

So if you hear the familiar ta ta ta ta-ta, head over to the crowd and experience the real Uruguay.

What happens at a comparsa

At the start, a fire is started and the drum skins are warmed to tighten them (see photo above). 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.

This one I filmed on the streets of Palermo during winter time, with months to go till carnival.

Tips to blend in, or your comparsa etiquette

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 everyone including neighbours loves a comparsa, so enjoy being part of a unique community experience.

DO

  • Blend in
  • Dress down
  • Buy a beer
  • Once the procession starts, walk along the pavement by the side or at the tail of the comparsa
  • Enjoy the experience rather than taking photos.

DON’T

  • Don’t expect things to start punctually
  • Don’t talk loudly in English (remember, you’re supposed to be blending in)
  • Don’t carry anything you wouldn’t want to lose
  • Do be aware of your safety. It is not unknown in Palermo and Barrio Sur in Montevideo for a robbery to take place.

Photo: Travis Alber