A Little Candombe

A oil painting of Pedro Figari depicting Candombe dancers (oil on canvas 75 X 105 cms.) Costantini Collection. Wikipedia sourced image, here.
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Not realising the rolling hills of farmland, the cattle towns and forgotten villages could consume six hours when coming by bus from Montevideo, the capital, I arrived later than expected.  For much of the way it’d been drizzling; perhaps the bus was behind schedule.  It was already Saturday evening when I hiked into Salto, over the railway lines past the shanties where curious eyes watched me and my backpack walk by.  Towards the centre of the town the buildings took on that dilapidated Spanish style that seemed characteristic of Uruguay.

In a side street I found a paint-peeling mansion that had become a hotel staffed by friendly pensioners and with hardly any Spanish I managed to take a room there.  It was large with a high ceiling; the water was cold and the sheets not unequivocally clean.  But I was pleased to have somewhere to store the luggage.

It was in Salto I found gratitude for the South American habit of eating at ungodly hours.  The world over dinner times are a facet of human existence that seems to have defied the forces of global homogenisation.  Norwegians favour a 4.30 p.m. start to their dinners, Australians dine anywhere from 6 – 8 p.m. and when I asked my friend Marina in Ukraine about their custom, I was told that Ukrainians are a strange people who like to eat at anytime they feel hungry.  Bangladeshis eat slightly latish at around 10.30 p.m. but in Argentina and Uruguay dinners can start as late as midnight.  The restaurant was yet to be crowded when I arrived.

The restaurateur was keen to teach Spanish and tried to chat: there had been foreigners in the night before, I understood.  He directed me to a table where I sat alone until another foreigner entered and was shown to my table.  I’m not sure if the restaurateur fancied himself to be a matchmaker; or if he imagined we might have shared, foreign things to speak of; but what harm did it do if she accidentally had dinner with me?

She was a sociology student from Minnesota or Milwaukee or somewhere in the American middle north that started with an ‘M’.  She was at the end of a six-month educational placement in Uruguay.  ‘It’ll prolong my degree and cost more,’ she said, ‘but I wanted to do something different.’

In Uruguay dinner means beef and beef means an enormous slab of steak that overflows the dinner plate on both sides, tender and juicy beyond comprehension, with the potential to clog a human artery in a single sitting.  It’s divine.  It’s nutritional madness.  It’s national cuisine.  And the king of the beef steaks need share his plate with no one: sidelines of salad or fries are ordered separately.

My companion from the American place starting with ‘M’ asked what I thought of Uruguay.  I could tell by the way she asked that she’d grown fond of the country, which I respected since it was much as I would have done, had I stayed there for six months.  I said Uruguay was great but, honestly, seemed a little sad also.  ‘Is it because of the poverty?’ she proposed.  ‘Not really,’ I said, ‘I’ve seen poorer countries that are downright optimistic.  It’s as though Uruguay should be richer; like it’s stuck.’  I added the disclaimer that as my idea was based on less than a week in the country it was most probably incorrect.  ‘No,’ she said, ‘I think what you said is insightful.’  But people from that ‘M’ place aren’t always right either.

Before the meal was done we became three: Benson, another Australian, was joined to us and the meal came to last an additional hour while he ate.  He was travelling around the world and thought to stay in China once he reached there; and it’s interesting that he inevitably did just that.

He was surprised I was going to Bolivia, which I then was.  There’d been political instability with protests, some rock throwing and national shut-downs, what in Bangladesh are called hartals.  ‘All the tourists are leaving,’ he told me, ‘and you are going in?’  ‘Should be no trouble finding a bus seat,’ I joked.  But the situation in Bolivia didn’t worry me much.  There had been no deaths and having been in Bangladesh many times during hartals I knew the worst for the traveller was likely to be the inconvenience of being stranded somewhere and nothing beyond that.  As it turned out the road to La Paz was open and my English teaching job was waiting.  As it turned out Bolivianos are quite considerate when they protest, which is often.  But that’s a later part of it.

It was on the Sunday evening that I got to know Benson slightly more.  Salto was a town where a main street meeting following an afternoon swimming at the hot springs didn’t need to be pre-arranged.  He said he wanted to attend the candombe and not really knowing what that was, I couldn’t argue.  I followed him to the plaza down beside the river port and saw people were gathered there.  It was beyond dusk but not yet Uruguayan dinner time.

Candombe isn’t exactly music, dance or theatre; it’s rather a cultural genre that’s a mix of the three which originated with the arrival of Bantu African slaves in Uruguay.  In its fullest form a candombe performance may feature difficult choreographed dance steps as well as wild improvisation; there can be costumed characters known to the genre such as an old mother, a herb doctor and a sweeper who juggles and performs balancing tricks with his broom; there can be the singing of Spanish or archaic African lyrics; and there is always a troop of drummers.[1] 

We adopted Pablo and his friend who for reasons unclear was called ‘The Duck.’  There was time for chatting as people gradually arrived.  There was a bit of drum tuning, singular beating at first which slowly grew into a low-key rhythm, stopping and re-starting, the talk and the drums. 

Pablo was planning to start a clothing company, he said, and his t-shirt featured an illustration of a giant fork on it.  The Duck was famous among his friends for his trip to Miami, where he’d imprudently arrived on the first anniversary of September 11.  I don’t know if Uruguayan Spanish sounds a little too Middle Eastern but The Duck, he was turned away; and after the solid week of farewell parties that had been in Salto, to the great amusement of his friends within days The Duck was back!

The drums gathered pace, musicians showed considerable skill and soon the crowd was dancing along the street, drums following.  ‘The rhythms are African,’ Pablo said, ‘but there are few Africans left in Uruguay.’ 

With Benson, Pablo and The Duck, I self-consciously and really quite dreadfully danced towards the front, in steps that would’ve shamed any candombe enthusiast.  But I took amusement from being less than a week in South America before finding myself unexpectedly dancing in the street.

It was pleasing to see local residents leaning out windows and clapping in time as the crowd passed; to see the cars and buses waving and jiggling a little from behind their steering wheels as they waited patiently to use the street.  I imagined Sydney: council approval, safety impact statements, noise complaints, insurance issues and ultimately banned.  An event that was so informal and worse, driven by young people, would not last there.  The Duck shared his unoriginal but succinct life philosophy: ‘live for now’ and with that in mind, what could be better than a little candombe? 

It was on the Monday I arrived by small passenger ferry, across the river, back in Argentina.




Candombe by Pedro Figari (Uruguayan painter, 1861-1938) Image from wikipedia. Here.

Continue your journey, towards  
to Mariachi Nica or, 
on the other side of the world, discover
The Song of Chittagong. Travel safe!

















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