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Jeannie Fontaina

The Candombe in Uruguay.

Fontaina, Jeannie: "The Candombe in Uruguay", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

I represent the Uruguayan Council of Dance in my capacity of current President of that organization. I'm very honored and moved to be standing here, on Greek soil, the birthplace of Occidental Civilization. My country, some 1800 miles from here, lies in the Southern Atlantic, covers an area of 72.000 square miles on which live three millions and a half of my compatriots; it is the smallest country in South America. Our cultural roots are deeply imbedded and influenced by the Greek thought, permeated all through by the teachings of the great masters of half a century before Christ; a deep medular belief in freedom, democracy and the rights of man runs through our veins, as it did through those of our patriarchs who heard the ancient Greek teachings.

Our society is a blend of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and other European inmigrants, as well as the aboriginal inhabitants and the Afros, who were brought to our shores through the infamous slave trade of centuries past. The aboriginal inhabitants, "Indians" as Columbus wrongly baptized them, descend from the Guarani stock keen to the Quechuas, Aymaras and Incas of this part of the world. Civilization in the Atlantic shores of the continent did not reach the heights of the Inca Empire in the Pacific, and unfortunately there are few traces of their presence now, but we owe them their heroic share in the fights that led to our independence and we do not forget. Thus, 95% of our population is of European stock, 2% of aboriginal and 3% of Afros of Congo-Angolan origin, mainly of Bantu tribes. This brief introduction allows us now to move on to a brief description of the dance in Uruguay, and particularly the Candombe, the dance and music developed and performed - with a strong European influence - by the slaves and our compatriots the Afro-Uruguayan. In fact, our most typical musical and dancing expressions are: Tango, Milonga, Pericon and Candombe.

I am going to talk about Candombe and its spectacular show, the Llamadas (The callings), as they have acquired at the turn of this century a new rebirth with an exploding popularity, both locally and internationally. The Candombe is authentically Uruguayan - etymologically the word "candombe" means "little African", "negrito", in the Bantu dialect. Another application of the word is to name the rituals with which the slaves celebrated their gatherings at certain festive days in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Candombe is also a reference to the ceremonies that were held in Africa for the coronation of a warrior to the category of chief or king in Bantu tribes. In Candombe there is also an expression of the syncretism between the Angolo-Congo fetishism and the Christian and catholic religion, represented by the cult of Saint Benito. From the standpoint of the musical instruments, the predominants are the membranophones: tamboriles (drums), second to these are the idiophones (mazacallas, marimbas, bones, etc.).

Onomatopoetically speaking, there is an obvious imitation of the sound of the percussion instruments in the word "candombe", as in many of the other words of the vocabulary of many African dialects or languages; there are many syllables in them that have a syncopated rhythm. As the bulk of the early Africans in Uruguay worked in the domestic services, there developed between masters and slaves a very close relationship which led the Africans to adopt most of the white people's customs.

The Candombe developed mainly in the seashore capital of Uruguay, Montevideo. There, the African rhythms blended with the predominant Uruguayan music: tango, milonga ad milongon. This blending of European and African music and dance represents the main idiosyncratic characteristic of the Uruguayan people. At certain festive dates the masters would give a free day to their slaves. On these occasions the Africans would gather in certain "meeting places" and start singing and dancing. Their masters would lend them some of their clothes (fracs, white ties, top hats, dresses etc) and jewelry, and peinetas, big tall combs to hold the hair as the Spanish dancers still sport. At the strong beat of hundreds of drums, the party would start and brought to a frenzied climax. Some of the white masters and children would join in and together build a cheerful party to the music of Candombe.

There were in those early stages of Candombe three main characters: the "Mama Vieja" (the old nanny) and young female vendors of little cakes and puddings, dressed in European fashion or all in white long skirts and white scarves round their heads, holding colorful parasols they rhythmically started, setting the tone of the dancing to the ever-increasing sound of the tamboriles. She always danced near or with the "Gramillero" (the grass man) that with top hat, frac and white beard pretended to woo her. He also represented the witch doctor, the "shaman", who can heal with grass and herbs.

The third most prominent performer is the "Escobillero" (the broomstick-man) colorfully dressed in an artistic African tribal style, with little mirrors in his attirement that shine and glitter with the contortions and his dancing steps, whilst he shows his skills and dexterity running the broomstick and rolling through all his body trying not to let it fall. The "Escobero" also represents a tribal warrior who competes with another broomstick-man from another group or "Cumparsa", trying each other to make the other one trip and fall, thus determining who is the winner. Finally the "Escobero" with his broomstick represents the parade leader of each "cumparsa".

When slavery was abolished in Uruguay the necessity of the meeting places started to wane till they finally disappeared in 1890. It was then that the Afro-Uruguayans started taking part in white communities' carnival celebrations and parades. That is when the "llamadas" (callings) started, and continue till the present day. Different dancing groups or cumparsas are formed, originally based in Afro neighborhoods. A few drummers start playing and beating their drums and move on to fetch others to join the parade. They "call" others to join till the different cumparsas swell to hundreds. The whites join in too, some of them in cumparsas called "Lubolos"; whites with their faces painted black and beating and dancing to the sound of the candombe. The event is now interracial and international but the stars are the members of the afro-Uruguayan community.

The "Llamadas" is the most popular event of Uruguay's carnival and it explodes like a "supernova" only one fantastic night in the year. So much has the candombe influenced tango and milonga that the most famous tango of the world " La Cumparsita" (the little cumparsa or parade) is like many other famous Uruguayan tangos. This said, without meaning to tease our argentine brothers on the other bank of the river plate, and the colleagues in this forum. The different cumparsas start to parade with huge flags identifying each group of hundreds, as the dancers and public stretch through blocks and blocks. The dancers dance with little mincing steps or large jetés, shuffle their heaps and thoraxes, swivel the whole of their bodies to the syncopated rhythm. A multitudinous event of music, percussion and dancing is on its way. As the author James Michener says, when the world dances, the whole world seems to smile. The whole crowd is in a frenzy of joy and expansion in the middle of the 20th century under the influence of the Brazilian carnival, the "vedettes" were added to the parade and beautiful Afro-Uruguayan women display their charm to the rhythm of the candombe.

In the present day the Candombe permeates all young Uruguayan music, adapted to the contemporary rhythms, initiated by Elvis Presley and The Beatles, among others. The "candombe-rock" and the "candombe-beat" blend with the traditional forms. As Plato refers of Socrates, I, like him, have not yet been able to obey the precepts of Delphi: knowing myself. Because of my ignorance it would seem ridiculous trying to know that which is strange to myself, as knowledge refers. But, I do "feel" that dancing gets us closer to heaven. Closer among ourselves, whatever race or religion, a perfect example is Candombe.

Dancing as a physical expression of a spiritual state is a form of culture that spreads with no barriers throughout the world, bringing humanity together and away from egotisms, evils and wars. It is an altruistic form of culture, common to all human beings. Let's dance to understand and tolerate our differences.

Ms. Jeannie Fontaina




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