Candombe, Cachila, and Afro-Uruguay

'Cachila' film still

Taking place this week and next week in Chapel Hill and Durham is the NC Latin American Film Festival, put on by the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. Tomorrow night features a screening of director Sebastián Bednarik’s Cachila: un hombre, una familia y el legado del Candombe/Cachila: a man, a family and the legacy of Candombe.

The documentary looks at the Uruguayan Silva family’s relationship with candombe, a popular form of Afro-Uruguayan drumming music rooted in African rituals. Troupes of drummers, marchers and dancers perform candombe, and the Silva family is a prominent one in upholding this art form. It is an important part of Uruguayan national identity, and Bednarik’s film looks at the family’s effort to continue the tradition and create a candombe legacy in their community.

In anticipation of the screening of Cachila tomorrow (at the Alfonso Elder Student Union, NCCU, 7pm), we turned to historian George Reid Andrews’ new book, Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay, which explores African influence in Uruguayan identity. Andrews learned and participated in candombe performances, and his book includes a personal account of his experiences with instructors, fellow drummers, and parades. He describes the unique rhythms and exhilarating feelings that characterize candombe, capturing why the music is such a defining aspect of the culture and embraced by all Uruguayans.

The following is an excerpt from Andrews’ book (chapter 4, pp. 129-131):

Though its roots are African, candombe was created in Uruguay and exists nowhere else, my friends told me. Upon learning that I had joined a comparsa and paraded in that year’s Llamadas, a city cultural official whom I met toward the end of my stay smiled delightedly and said that I could not possibly have had a more profoundly Uruguayan experience–which I think is probably true. But as they embrace candombe as a core component of national identity, no one ever mentions feeling under siege by internationalization. The drummers seem to come to candombe not from feelings of defensiveness but for purely positive reasons, and for love of the music itself.

As we have seen, Uruguayans love candombe, and for good reason. Like samba, salsa, merengue, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and all the other African-based “national rhythms,” it is a musical form that, in the words of one informant, “won’t let you sit still.” And over the last hundred years, the comparsas have developed methods of playing it that enable them to take people with limited musical experience and turn them into juggernauts of rhythm. The music is played on three types of drums–chico, repique, and piano–each of which has a different voice–alto, tenor, and bass, respectively–and plays a different rhythmic figure. The piano hits heavy downbeats on one and four, with intervening syncopated eighth and sixteenth notes; the chico leaps in immediately following each beat with a sequence of three sixteenth notes. Both drums pound out the same stuttering phrases over and over again, in a deep aesthetic of monotony; the repique players have more freedom to improvise, and drive the group forward with their counterrhythms.

The result, when played at maximum volume and with maximum force and authority, is irresistibly powerful and compelling. Here we might recall Tomás Olivera’s memories of the 1956 Llamadas: “The cheering and applause were like an earthquake; and . . . with the thundering of the drums, the shouts of the spectators, the bombs and rockets shooting up into the sky, one had the sense that the buildings on each side of the street were about to explode into thousands of pieces.” This is an accurate and not at all exaggerated description of what it feels like to march and drum with a comparsa. The waves of rhythm put out by our drums did indeed feel strong enough to demolish the buildings around us. As we marched along on our weekly practices, we set off every car and building alarm en route; yet the whooping alarms could barely be heard as tiny yawps above the thunderous din.

Several of the drummers I talked to described the feeling of being “transported” while marching; and as we marched and drummed, digging deeper and deeper into the groove, I did feel simultaneously rooted and floating. The force of gravity and the steady reassurance of the ground had never seemed so necessary, to keep us from levitating off down the street on the cresting waves of rhythm. Yet the ground provided no rest, and was itself charged with surging electrical forces that flowed through us in a steady pulsing voltage. Everything was suffused with rhythm: the air, the ground, the universe, our bodies, our organs, and of course our drums. We were simultaneously the source, the conduit, and the recipient of that rhythm, I and fifty other drummers, hands rising and falling, legs stepping and marching, all together, all as one.

Yes, obviously the feeling is sexual–how could it not be, with these rich currents flowing through you? At the end we were exhausted, drenched with sweat, yet refreshed, relaxed, and glowing. Everyone felt good after drumming–unless, that is, we had suffered injury or exhaustion along the way, which are frequent parts of the enterprise. The marches “are a test of exceptional physical strength,” notes one analysis of the comparsas, “and psychic strength as well.” That is an exaggeration, I would say; anyone in reasonable physical condition can carry and play the drums. But there is no question that doing so while marching, listening to the rest of the group, and maintaining perfect rhythm (or trying to) for an hour or more is intensely demanding. And all drummers, even the most experienced, can tear skin off their hands as they pound the leather drumheads. Ever “the good warriors” invoked by Lobo Núñez, drummers are expected to ignore their wounds and play through the pain, heads held high and gazing coolly into the distance.

Bloodshed is just one part of the military character of the comparsas. The experience of preparing for the Llamadas is not unlike going through boot camp. There are clear lines of authority and command, based on the age, experience, and ability of the different members. Our instructor Miguel, his colleague Sergio, and their lieutenants, all work to instill a kind of martial discipline. Miguel and Sergio in particular adopt a classic good cop/bad cop approach. As we march, Sergio stalks up and down the ranks, bawling us out for our numerous shortcomings. Miguel looks on gloomily, leaving us to guess whether he is more saddened by Sergio’s ferocity or by our clumsy mediocrity.

As in any military unit, we pass long stretches of boredom and inactivity punctuated by brief bursts of intense action and excitement. Since comparsas field a lot of people, we routinely spend an hour or more waiting for everyone to show up, for drums to be tuned, for ranks to form, and so on. We pass the time smoking, joking, complaining about our “officers”; and then it is time to go over the top, into action.

These experiences produce their intended results, and gradually one becomes part of the unit, bonded to one’s fellow drummers.

From Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay, by George Reid Andrews. Copyright (c) 2010 The University of North Carolina Press.

To learn more about the Festival, which runs through November 20th, visit their website and check out the schedule.