A Brief History of the Uruguayan Candombe

Carnaval dancers in traditional costume
Carnaval dancers in traditional costume | © Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr
Georgia Mizen

The heart and soul of Uruguayan culture, today candombe is one of the country’s most well-known exports. From humble origins, it has grown into a drumming and dance spectacular, that’s celebrated every January with a month-long fiesta in the streets of Montevideo. We take a look at the history of this enchanting, affecting performance.
Candombe is a rhythm – a style of drumming and dance that first surfaced among young people of African slave descent in the late 18th century. Then, around a quarter of the country’s population had arrived on the shores of the nation from all corners of Africa. It was a lively community, with an intricate array of ethnicities and cultures – dance halls, schools and clandestine meetings sprang up all over Uruguay as people flocked to share candombe with each other.

A mural depicting traditional candombe

With strong Bantu roots, the first candombe drummers called their instruments tangó. The Uruguayan authorities caught wind of this “defiant”, “immoral” candombe during the fight for independence from Argentina and Brazil and sought to stamp it out. The governor of Montevideo pushed drummers and dancers further underground, until slavery was abolished in 1842 and these secret dance meetings spilled out onto the streets. From that moment on, candombe became a defining feature of Uruguay’s national identity.

Candombe drummers in Barrio Sur

To Uruguayans, candombe means so much more than just a performance: it’s a gathering of like-minded people and a fusion of distinct traditions. Every January, residents and tourists come out to Barrio Sur and Palermo to join in Las Llamadas. The unmistakable candombe rhythm is created by three drums: tambor piano, tambor chico and tambor repique. Telling the story of the profound impact African cultures have had on Uruguay and its people, this arresting rhythm is today accompanied by a complex, energetic dance and bird-of-paradise-like costumes in tablados, or nightly shows. Powerful, emotional and invigorating, it’s truly a sight and sound to behold.

Carnival 2017: from 8.30pm, 19th January for 40 nights. Various locations in Barrio Sur and Palermo.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

close-ad
Edit article