Montevideo (AFP) – As a little boy, Cesar Pintos – now 86 – played “drums” with his friends on the streets of predominantly black neighborhoods in Montevideo, beating tin cans with twigs to ancestral rhythms brought in Uruguay by enslaved Africans.
It was the 1940s, barely 100 years since the abolition of slavery in the South American country and a period of explosive growth for candombe – a uniquely Afro-Uruguayan style of music.
“Black people brought it here,” Pintos told AFP of the music, which UNESCO has recognized as part of Uruguay’s cultural heritage “passed down within families of African descent.”
“They brought it in their head, because they had nothing” down the line of possessions, Pintos said.
As an adult, he set up his own “comparsa” of percussionists and dancers from his neighborhood of Cordon, one of the cradles of Candombe.
The group, named Sarabanda, to this day participates in “Las Llamadas” – an annual parade hailed as a celebration of African heritage and the culmination of the Montevideo Carnival.
Las Llamadas translates to “The Calls”, from the ancient practice of beating drums to “gather” the community.
Every year since 1956, dozens of comparsas have paraded through downtown Montevidean with painted faces and elaborate costumes reminiscent of a distant past on a foreign continent.
In a two-day carnival contest attended by thousands, they beat candombe tunes on wooden and animal skin drums as performers danced.
From “objects” to music stars
Today, Las Llamadas is a celebration for all racial groups – in fact, many comparsas are predominantly white.
But the origins of Candombe music are found in the black struggle.
Montevideo was an important port of entry for enslaved Africans brought by Europeans to South America beginning in the second half of the 18th century.
By the late 1700s, more than a third of the capital’s population was of African descent, according to the municipal website.
For generations of slaves and their offspring, drumming and dancing in their free time was a way to maintain distant ties with the mother continent.
When slavery was abolished in Uruguay in the mid-19th century, Afro-Uruguayans created mutual aid societies, whose lively meetings gave rise to candombe.
“The drum for us is fundamental… It allows us to protest when we need to be heard, and also to have fun,” said AFP Alfonso Pintos, the son of Cesar, aged 59 years old.
He highlighted the comparsas’ role in escalating Uruguayan resistance to apartheid in South Africa, and closer to home, the country’s military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s that displaced many black Montevidians.
Today, Las Llamadas is more of a party than a protest, but the fight for equality is not over.
According to the World Bank, Uruguay stands out in Latin America for its low level of inequality, although black people are more likely to be poor.
The latest inequality report from the government statistics institute INE reported in 2014 that more than half of Afro-descendants did not have their basic needs met, compared to less than a third of whites.
Nine out of ten Afro-Uruguayans between the ages of 20 and 24 do not obtain higher education.
True to its roots?
Just over 255,000 people out of approximately 3.2 million Uruguayans identified as Afro-descendants in the last census.
This is a decreasing ratio of population – about 8.0% compared to more than a third 200 years ago.
“Uruguay really took the idea of trying to become a white nation very seriously,” primarily by encouraging European migration, said historian George Reid Andrews, author of the book “Blackness in the White Nation.”
For many Afro-Uruguayans, candombe is a treasured heritage.
Alfonso Pintos, a carpenter by trade, took over Sarabanda from dad Cesar, who still makes appearances with the troupe.
Cesar’s grandson Pablo, 34, is the percussion coordinator and his granddaughter Micaela, 29, the principal dancer.
Seven-year-old Catalina, Cesar’s great-granddaughter, is already preparing to become a fourth-generation performer.
But some believe Candombe is no longer true to its roots.
Tomas Chirimini is president of the civic association Africania and leader of the Conjunto Bantu show troupe, which does not participate in Las Llamadas or Carnival.
“The black (Uruguayan) has lost a place to express his heritage,” Chirimini, 84, told AFP, referring to what he sees as creeping commercialization and dilution of Afro-Uruguayan culture.
Things are indeed changing, said Sarabanda drummer Fred Parreno, 34.
But “the main thing is (…) to be aware of what we represent when we take a drum”, he explains to AFP.
“You represent a lot of people who came before and shed their blood so that today we can walk down the street” drumming, he said.
© 2022 AFP