Candombe is a drum-based musical style of Uruguay. Candombe originated among the African population of the South American country’s capital, Montevideo, and is based on Bantu African drumming.

In the third decade of the nineteenth century the word candombe began to appear in Montevideo, referring to self-help dancing societies founded by persons of African descent. The term means “pertaining to blacks” in Ki-Kongo. In Montevideo it meant more than a dance or a music or a congregation, but all of the above.

Candombe the dance was a local fusion of various African traditions. A complicated choreography included a final section with wild rhythms, freely improvised steps, and energetic, semi-athletic movements.  Afro-Argentines accented the hips and Afro-Uruguayans accented the shoulders.

According to George Reid Andrews, the historian of Montevideo Black communities, after the middle of the nineteenth century younger blacks in particular abandoned the candombe in favor of dances from Europe such as the mazurka. Meanwhile, whites began to imitate the steps and movements of blacks.  Calling themselves Los Negros, upper class portenos in the 1860s and 1870s blackened their faces and formed one of the carnival processions each year.

A new dance, which embodied the movement and style of the candombe, and called a tango with couples dancing apart, rather than in an embrace, was created by the Afro-Argentines of Mondongo in the year 1877. So wrote a man who identified himself as “Viejo Tanguero” in a September 1913 article in Buenos Aires’s first mass circulation popular newspaper,

The music of candombe is performed by a group of drummers called a cuerda.   The barrel-shaped drums, or tamboriles, have specific names according to their size and function: chico (small, high timbre, marks the tempo), repique (medium, syncopation and improvisation) and piano (large, low timbre, melody). An even larger drum, called bajo or bombo (very large, very low timbre, accent on the fourth beat), was once common but is now declining in use. A cuerda at a minimum needs three drummers, one on each part. A full cuerda will have 50-100 drummers, commonly with rows of seven or five drummers, mixing the three types of drums. A typical row of five can be piano-chico-repique-chico-piano, with the row behind having repique-chico-piano-chico-repique and so on to the last row.

Tamboriles are made of wood with animal skins that are rope-tuned or fire-tuned minutes before the performance. They are worn at the waist with the aid of a shoulder strap called a talig or talí and played with one stick and one hand.


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