I know I’m jumping around quite a bit on the blog, but I couldn’t wrap up Montevideo without talking about this. It’s taken me quite a bit of time to write about it, because I could never find the right way to capture this experience. And even now I don’t feel like I’m doing it justice.
So I always say that I hope to get really authentic, one-of-a-kind cultural experiences when traveling, but to be honest, that doesn’t happen to us very often. Most of our time is spent eating by ourselves at TripAdvisor restaurants. And most of our sightseeing involves the most popular touristic attractions a city has to offer. We don’t really get a chance to get a real off-the-beaten-path experience (and I wouldn’t even know where to go look for one). And it’s not like that locals are dying to invite us to their homes to cook food for us (though I wish). But in Montevideo, both of those things happened. And it’s all because we decided to sign up for a candombe tour with Alberto.
First of all – What is candombe?
Candombe can only be described as the heart and soul of Uruguayan culture. On the surface, it’s a kind of drumming. But it’s also so much more than just that. Here in Uruguay, it’s the rhythm, the music, the drums, an identity, a state of mind, and a way of life. Basically, nothing is more Uruguayan than candombe.
Candombe culture was brought into Uruguay along with the African slaves during the colonial period. They mainly lived in the Barrio Sur and Palermo neighborhoods, and it was there that they kept the tradition alive, as a way to remember their country and to survive in a largely European-influenced culture.
Quite a few people told us to make sure we DON’T miss the candombe on Sunday nights (more on that later), but we decided to take it one step further and actually learn to play. Other cultures’ traditions are so interesting to me, especially coming from a place that has none of its own. In fact, that’s one of the first questions Hector (our instructor for the night) asked as soon as we entered his warehouse space.
“Where are you from? What represents your culture?”
“We’re from Southern California.” The first question was easy to answer. “And it’s absolutely devoid of culture,” D said after a bit of thought.
Ouch. Harsh. While I’d like to believe that that’s not true, I’m still racking my brains to answer that myself. Is our culture our love for celebrity gossip and luxury brands? Or maybe it’s the phenomenon of reality stars being famous purely for the fact of being famous? Actually, I’d like to think that it’s the mish-mash all different cultures that make SoCal such a diverse place. But Uruguayan culture is definitely under-represented (or not at all).
Anyway, for Uruguayans, this question is easy to answer. And at that moment, the answer was right in front of us, in the forms of dozens of blue drums.
After a bit of walking through Barrio Sur, a slightly run-down working class neighborhood, we ended up at the old abandoned coal factory, which is now home to where Hector practices candombe with his group. Normally Barrio Sur isn’t the kind of neighborhood we’d find ourselves in after dark, but we were here tonight for an authentic candombe experience, from someone who lives and breathes the candombe culture.
Learning the beats
Hector explained that there are 3 roles of drums. The little drum keeps the beat. It’s always the same beat: one beat made by a slap of the palm and two beats to follow in quick succession with a single drumstick. A large rounder drum provides the base. And yet another drum is the improvisation.
We learned the basic beat, and then we only had one task: to stay on beat while Hector improvises. Sounds simple, right? Apparently not if you are severely uncoordinated. I kept on going off beat and messing everyone up, until I finally gave up. Also, those drums were surprisingly heavy too!
Without me in the picture, Hector, Daniel, and Alberto managed to make some decent music. Here is a short clip I took of them.
Please excuse the absolute zero editing and beautifying. I haven’t yet learned how to edit videos. And apparently, I didn’t even know that you’re supposed to shoot a video horizontally.
If you’re wondering what in the world Daniel is wearing… it’s the actual costume that Hector’s group wears during Carnival! Yes, we realize it’s red and sparkly and absolutely ridiculous… and I love this video all the more for it!
Here it is again!
Also, please excuse the really poor picture quality. The warehouse was dingy and none of the pictures came out good, and can’t be improved.
This experience ranks way up there as one of my favorite South American memories. I don’t know how to describe it, but standing in a dingy warehouse, wearing a silly costume (D, not me… I guess I wasn’t good enough to merit one), laughing and slapping on a drum… it was one of those real, authentic moments that made me realize what I love about traveling.
And this is exactly what Alberto wished to provide. We found this tour through Vayable (at $35/person), which is a site that truly believes in unique cultural exchanges by allowing locals to list their own experiences. It’s different from other travel tour sites (such as Viator) in that your guide is a local who will provide a more intimate insiders-only experience. Exactly what we are looking for!
Ok, I promise this isn’t turning into a review for Vayable. So if you don’t want to spend the money, you can still experience the candombe culture for free!
Today, candombe can be heard loud and proud throughout the 40 days of Carnival (running through February). Not visiting Uruguay in February? Don’t worry, that’s not the only time to catch candombe groups at play. Candombe is an art to be taken seriously and groups practice all year. And every Sunday night, the streets of Palermo come alive with the beats of candombe.
They say to just follow the sound of the drums and you’ll find them. True enough, we didn’t have any trouble. We came across quite a few groups in one night, with the largest group containing 100 drummers or so! If you thought that just 3 drums made a good amount of noise, just imagine dozens of drummers, drumming one beat, slowly marching down the street. Hundreds of people following alongside them. Dancing. Walking their dogs. Openly swigging bottles of beer. It’s the best kind of block party ever!
(I wish I could have gotten a video (or at least pictures) of the street players, but it was way too dark.)
It was one of those perfect nights where I finally felt like I was having a real traveler’s experience. And the icing on the cake? After running around with Alberto all night and bonding over a bottle of beer at a bar, my wish finally happened: he invited us to his house to cook food for us!
But that is a post for another time. Stay tuned! :)
Disclaimer: I am not being compensated in any way to mention Alberto’s company or Vayable (this post is just extremely disorganized). This was simply an awesome experience and I’m so glad I did it! To miss this would be missing out on a HUGE chunk of Uruguayan culture.