In November 2006, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies debated a bill to declare the third of December each year as a ‘National Day of Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Culture and Racial Equity’. As the background justifying the bill explained, ‘Some years ago the beat of the drum in public was either repressed or considered dismissively […] This led to the folklorization of the candombe as another facet of discrimination by a large part of society, and even its rejection by some Afro-descendants bent on social advancement, who chose to distance themselves from their culture’. Attitudes were nevertheless changing, the legislative justification continued: ‘In recent years, candombe has grown as an expression of our culture; the beating of drums is often practised in barrios and cities where the sound of the candombe is integral to the urban landscape’.
From their earliest presence in what is now Uruguay, the ‘African nations’ engaged in ritual drumming and celebratory dancing on Sundays and holidays, until such celebrations were banned inside and outside the city walls of Montevideo in the early part of the nineteenth century (over time, they were again permitted outside the city walls). By the midpoint of that century, the fbagdes saw a resurgence, gaining increasing popularity among all Montevideans, whether of African or European descent. The candombe flourished especially in the context of the Lenten Carnival, where candombe troupes or comparsas brought together dancers, singers, drummers and other musicians, often in elaborate costumes, to parade through the streets of Montevideo.
A tradition of undisputed African ancestry, candombe successively expanded its appeal and participation over time to incorporate all Uruguayans, black or white. It had repeatedly been rejected by some, even within the Afro-Uruguayan community, in favour of international models of modernity, and it had resisted repression under the military dictatorship (1973-85). The law – and the inscription of candombe on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009 – restored candombe as the ultimate symbol of the contributions of people of African descent to Uruguay’s culture – but also of its inclusiveness and creativity.
Prepared by Frank Proschan