Easing racism with Uruguay's answer to Brazilian samba

Once ignored as the music of poor African slaves, the hot rhythms of candombe are gaining in popularity - and uniting blacks and whites.

Young men wearing wool caps and tightly zipped jackets lay drums on their sides to tune them in front of an open fire. Sparks fly as the men toss in crumpled newspapers to keep the fire going in the frigid night air of Uruguay's unseasonably cold winter.

After the fire's heat tightens the drum skins to a common pitch, the musicians strap on their tambor drums and begin to beat out Uruguay's infectious, African-based rhythm known as candombe.

The resurgent interest in Uruguay's answer to Brazil's samba is part of what many call a broader effort to end racial discrimination and achieve political power for the nation's marginalized black people.

"Candombe has become part of the identity of the Uruguayan people: whites, blacks, and mixed race," says musician Eduardo Da Luz. At the same time, he says, the growing interest in the African roots of candombe reflects an incipient black cultural and political movement.

Candombe originated during the colonial era when African slaves brought their religious drumming, singing, and dancing to Uruguay. They played three types of tambores, drums that look a little like potbellied congas. A drummer creates unique sounds by striking the drum with both his hand and a stick.

For much of this century, candombe was only performed during Carnival and at black family events. Uruguay's white upper crust shunned the music, similar to what happened in the early days of jazz in the United States.

"A lot of Uruguayans heard candombe as a music of poor people," says Mr. Da Luz. "It took a long time for candombe to win acceptance here."

Black Uruguayans are also fighting to win acceptance, says Beatrice Ramirez, Montevideo's first black city councillor. She notes they have never been permitted to reach the upper levels of the military or business. Blacks, she says, earn 20 percent lower wages than whites for similar work.

In addition to her governmental responsibilities, Ms. Ramirez has helped co-found Mundo Afro, the country's main black cultural organization. "Artists and political activists are in the same battle," she says. "We're struggling for social, economic and political rights."

Yet most white Uruguayans deny that racism exists here. They "claim not to be racist," says Washington Salvo, minister of the nation's Electoral Court. "But ask people if they would accept a black man marrying their white daughter, and you would see the level of discrimination."

Political progress is slow in a country that won't even acknowledge its racism, says Ramirez, and Mundo Afro tries to raise awareness through the arts as well.

During the brutal military dictatorship that governed Uruguay from 1973 to 1984, white Uruguayan musicians fused candombe rhythms with "Canto Popular" (popular song) to create a new and exciting musical form. They combined Spanish-based voice and guitar melodies, candombe rhythms and an antidictatorship message. By the time the military regime fell, candombe was emerging as Uruguay's national music.

Blacks were pleased with the new found legitimacy of candombe, but still felt the sting of discrimination. "Whenever artists were sent abroad to represent Uruguay, they never sent black people," says Ruben Rada, perhaps the country's most famous black drummer and band leader. "Not many people in the world, including Latin Americans, know Uruguay has black people."

But on the streets of Montevideo, that is changing. Now, young people of both races gather every Sunday at the jam sessions - or domingueras - around the city to heat their drums around open fires and then march through the barrios to pulsating beats.

Civil rights activists hope they can ignite a similar passion for racial justice.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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