In a Nutshell: Candombe

By 28 November, 2010

It’s impossible to spend anytime in Montevideo, Uruguay, without suddenly feeling like you’re in the middle of a parade. The sound of drums are everywhere … maybe even more so than in Brazil. It all has to do with Uruguay’s heritage and the African slaves that were brought to these shores in the early 19th century. Every Sunday the slaves would get dressed up, dust off their drums and have a bit of a shindig on one of Montevideo’s promenades, and the new sound spread throughout the city. The rhythm was called candombe and it’s the unofficial sound of Montevideo’s streets.

What’s it like?

Candombe has obvious comparisons to African drumming styles (especially Bantu) but has changed considerably, first through necessity as the original slaves had to find alternative materials to make their drums than those they would find in their homeland, and secondly through its assimilation by European immigrants and the changes that they have made, inadvertent or not. In popular terms, it most closely resembles samba but unlike samba, opts for power over melodic flourishes. It is an unrelenting style which can be played at times for hours without any break. It’s this that gives a real sense of earthiness, more so than the glamour of carnival samba.

Where can I find it?

Candombe is the sound of the streets. The most famous llamada (name used for a parade of drums, basically translating as ‘call,’ as in the drums calling from the streets) is Isla de Flores which can be found every Sunday around 8pm on the street called, wait for it … Isla de Flores. Alternatively, La Melaza, an all-female group, offering a smoother, but no less technical, performance can also be found nearby every Sunday on Blanes and San Salvador.

What else should I know?

It also helped spawn Candombe Beat, the most popular strain of national pop music in Uruguay. Using a 3/4 rhythm artists such as Eduardo Mateo and Ruben Rada began creating folk and rock songs, often with hand drum percussion, in the late 1960s which would be a blueprint for all Uruguayan music that came after. Artists including Jaime Roos picked up the mantle in the ’80s. Most Uruguayan singers still keep the odd candombe song or two in their repertoire but the increasing popularity of Western music has diverted the focus somewhat.

Eduardo Mateo's first album Mateo Solo Bien Se Lame

Recommended listening

The only real way to enjoy candombe is in the open air. However, Grupo del Cuareim (1999) is a good introduction featuring Uruguayan legends such as Ruben Rada, Hugo Fattoruso and Fernando ‘Lobo’ Nuñez. Also, Mateo Solo Bien Se Lame (1972) with its effortless mix of candombe, bossa nova and pop is a near-perfect album by Uruguayan icon Eduardo Mateo.

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