Candombe: The Adoption, Re-Shaping and Popularisation of Black Culture in Uruguay

Natalie Tan – Singapore

Candombe, a rhythm that originated from African slaves, has become an essential part of Uruguayan identity, and thus a celebration of Afro-Uruguayan culture. However, Candombe’s popularization has the potential to perpetuate a stereotypical image of Afro-Uruguayans in a country where they fare worse than the rest of the population.

On Sundays, drummers assemble in the southern neighborhoods of Montevideo, Uruguay to perform what is now a hallmark of Uruguayan national identity: the Candombe, a rhythm created by black slaves during the 1800s. In multiple neighborhoods throughout Montevideo, groups of drummers or comparsas, place their drums around a gutter bonfire that warms up the skins and tones the drums’ hides. When the sun sets, in rows and in unison, the comparsas pound the street in a blur of sound, sweat, and strength. A vital part of the neglected African diaspora, Candombe is a reflection of the profound impact that African culture has had in Uruguay and else in Latin America. However, with the popularisation of Flamenco during the 1800s, most of the comparsas “de negros”, as they are traditionally called, became comparsas “de blancos”, and transformed into both a landmark of national identity and a celebration of Afro-Uruguayan culture. However, Candombe’s integration into Uruguayan mainstream through its diffusion across different ethnic groups is an example of racial equality in a country where Afro-Uruguayans still do worse on average, and where manifestations of Afro-Uruguayan culture like this are redefining what it means to be black in Uruguay.

Uruguay is the only Latin American country ranked among the world’s 20 “full democracies”, according to the 2015 Economist Democracy Index. After its independence from the Spanish empire in 1830, Uruguay abolished racial laws and practices to implement a series of socio-economic and political reforms that benefited workers rights, and thus reduced social and economic differences across sectors of society. Uruguay’s commitment to laws of civil and social equality are reflected in its poverty index and GINI coefficient, which are the lowest in Latin America. Nevertheless, there is a historical flaw in Uruguay’s record. Despite the well-intentioned social reforms, Uruguayans of African descent—who make up 10% of the total population—still suffer from social and structural inequality. In fact, the disposable income of the white population is 70% higher than that of Afro-Uruguayans, the racial group with the highest probability of being situated in extreme poverty. According to the 2011 census, half of the Afro-Uruguayans live below the poverty line, compared to one-quarter of the general population. They are also less likely to finish high school or tertiary education.

In response to racial inequalities and hoping to create dialogue on racial conditions in Uruguay and the obstacles to achieving a true racial democracy, Afro-Uruguayan Congressman Edgardo Ortuno proposed the creation of a national holiday: the Day of Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Culture, and Racial Equality. Celebrated on December 3 every year, the day pays homage to Afro-Uruguayan culture and history through the display and performance of Candombe.  However, promoting the art of Candombe as it is may be dangerous because its adoption into the mainstream centres on the adoption of black stereotypes and customs associated with being black in Uruguay,

Candombe originated in the early 1800s on the African salas de nación, spaces where Afro-Uruguayans met to hold public dances. In his bookCandombe, Afro-Uruguayan author Ruben Carambula defines Candombe as the rhythm that survived of the ancestral heritage of the African slaves brought to Montevideo in the 1600s. Carambula argues that at its core,  Candombe “summons the sorrows of the unfortunate slaves, who were hastily transplanted to South America to be sold and subjected to brutal work.” Candombe became so popular that groups of white Uruguayans adopted it through the creation of comparsas: musical groups that started parading in the Uruguayan Carnival each year. Seeking to imitate Afro-Uruguayan version of Candombes, the comparsas paraded in black-face and African costumes. With them, groups of Afro-Uruguayans developed their own comparsas, transforming the performance of candombe into a dynamic practice in which white performers imitated blacks while black performers imitate whites imitating blacks. The images of black life that the performers represented were based on a series of stereotypes which date back to the late 1800s.  Blackness was presented as something that had a special relationship with the primitive powers of rhythm, dance, magic, and sex. These comparsas, both black and white, became the most applauded element of Montevideo’s carnival, and as a result, perpetuated and embraced stereotypical images of the Afro-Uruguayan community.

The cultural appropriation and transformation of elements of Afro-Uruguayan culture is similar to the portrayal of African-Americans as black faces during the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 1800s, white entertainers, who were fascinated by black music, rhythm, and life, adopted and brought African American “culture” to a mainstream audience. These portrayals were shaped by a cartoonish and mocking portrayal of African-Americans based on the belief that African-Americans were inferior.For example, white entertainers mocking black culture shaped and defined the image of African-American culture and identity in the United States. In the candombe comparsa, Afro-Uruguayans have been portrayed in similar ways. Some of the first comparsas “de negros” led by white Uruguayans, created three stock characters who embodied stereotypical images of Afro-Uruguayan culture to accompany the comparsas. The escobero, a young acrobatic male with a broom, represents vitality and sexuality. The gramillero, an old man possessing magical spices and herbs, represents a mystic and primitive image. Finally, the mama vieja, a black woman with an umbrella, represents the black women who worked for white households. Nevertheless, as stereotypical and one dimensional these characters are, all three of them have been implemented and embraced by multiple companies as reflections of Afro-Uruguayan culture.

Cultural expression demonstrates an incredible potential to open a conversation about Uruguay’s racial issues, as well as the way historical processes have shaped the image and status of the Afro-Uruguayan community. Candombe’s role as an essential element of national identity and a product of Afro-Uruguayan culture presents an opportunity to tackle existing racial inequality in Uruguay. And yet, since Candombe’s development as a reflection of black culture is mainly portrayed and shaped by non-black Uruguayans, it poses certain dangers to the image of Afro-Uruguayans. The way in which culture has been adopted, transformed, and diffused has the potential to perpetuate a one-dimensional and stereotypical image of the Afro-Uruguayan community.