Our author digs into the Montevidean ethos to investigate the allure of the city's street drumming, and finds that one culture's quality–of–life violation is another's benefit.
Diesel smoke, grill smoke, cigarette smoke. They were just warm–ups for a face full of fumes from burning cardboard and furniture. At the curb, I stood over the flames, too enchanted to seek fresher air. A burly Iranian man urged me to draw from a soda bottle refilled with red wine as a girl I had never met greeted me with a kiss on the cheek.
It was Friday night in Montevideo, Uruguay, and I was waiting for the candombe drum group Tambor Brujo to begin its weekly march through otherwise quiet streets. Over a dozen drummers had placed their drums sideways around the fire so the heat would tune up the horsehide heads. "It's like Jimi Hendrix," a scruffily–bearded drummer commented to me when he threw a newspaper into the fire. Unlike Hendrix's guitar, the drums themselves remained singe–free, their heads glowing in the firelight like setting suns.
Barrel–shaped and ribbed with metal rings, the candombe drum looks and sounds similar to the conga, since both claim a common origin in the traditions of Bantu peoples of Africa, brought to Uruguay and Cuba as slaves. The group waiting around the fire, however, reflected the ethnic makeup of modern Uruguay: mostly white. Just as blues in America is no longer race specific, so went candombe in Uruguay.
Nor is candombe gender specific. Nor fashion specific. Aside from a few drummers wearing red Tambor Brujo t–shirts, the sartorial hodge–podge espoused Montevideo's standard casual style: cargo shorts, jeans, loafers, flip flops. Painted drum designs ranged from flames to hammers and sickles. They stood like a ragtag band about to support a ragtag army—without the army.
Tambor Brujo is one of many candombe groups that march through the city's streets. During Carnival, each group, or cuerda, dons matching costumes and day–glow face paint. But tonight, in mid–March, the idea was just to go out and drum.
I approached Lalo, a drummer who also administers websites for Uruguayan musicians. While he was collecting his instrument from the fire, I asked him if the drums bother the neighbors. Without looking up, he answered, "They're accustomed."
Accustomed. An ominously ambiguous word choice. It could mean that the people have given up, have found some lip–biting way of coping. Many Americans, for example, have become "accustomed" to their families and friends hunching over iPhones at the dinner table.
When the group began to march and the cracks of sticks striking tight skin began bouncing between façades, I learned what accustomed meant. Flip–flop–wearing residents walked out onto the sidewalk to watch. Toddlers with tyke–sized candombe drums strapped onto them waited in thresholds, egged on by their parents to play along.
Meanwhile, several young women had begun squirming in a hip–whipping dance in front of the drummers, albeit wearing considerably more fabric than during Carnival. People walking their dogs steered their pets alongside the cuerda. Couples circled while snapping photos, the cuerda gaining mass with each block.
I followed the sounds of the drums ricocheting off the houses. The walls seemed alive, responding to the drums in perfect time. As a percussionist, I caught a naughty thrill hearing the irresistibly sweet—and often forbidden—marriage of drums and street acoustics. That was when I noticed Pocitos—this residential neighborhood—was noticeably well kept. I thought of David Byrne's ruminations in his Bicycle Diaries concerning the usual correlation between a neighborhood's affordability and its tolerance for eccentricity. I wished he could have joined us, bike and all. As a side benefit of choosing a pleasant urban neighborhood for drumming, there's a steady supply of slightly used, discarded furniture to burn when it comes time to tune up.
The cuerda successfully blocked traffic, forcing cars to crawl at the pace of the synchronized steps. No one honked. No obscene gestures stabbed the air. Some cars refused to remain silent, however, owing to the degree of affluence that ushers in inevitable car alarms. The rumble of bass from the larger drums set the alarms of parked cars a–squealing, that awful robotic blare whose only purpose is to agitate. Shame on those drivers for polluting the street with noise!
Twenty drummers ended their performance on one tight note. The façades busied themselves with echoing applause.
As I fell asleep that night, I kept thinking about the fans—the parents in the thresholds and their kids holding their cool little coffee–can–sized drums.
Montevideo's street culture
Next morning: still coughing up essence of burning bourgeois chair leg. Someone was painting a mural on the façade of an art foundation across my hotel. I had already started a collection of mural photos from previous walks in Montevideo—Batman with a bare, protruding gut; Jesus in tighty–whities; fish with opposable thumbs. The streets were speaking. I kept listening.
I wondered what statement the rusty Studebakers and Morrises along the curb were making. Despite contributing to the city's sooty air, the cars must have been tickling a particular aesthetic fancy. Some were junked, and were somehow entitled to parking spots as their final resting places, where they oxidized in peace: a charming respect for the elderly. It was as if removing them would be an act of vandalism.
Manicured plazas line the city's main avenue, 18 de Julio, at conveniently regular intervals, natural meeting points of which Montevideans take advantage. Young couples nuzzling foreheads, mothers nursing al fresco, a trio in soccer jerseys sharing a gourd of bitter yerba mate tea on a park bench. Texting remained a rare sight.
At this early hour, the drummers had swapped out their instruments for gourds and hot water–filled thermoses as they walked into bakeries or music stores. But their presence lingered. Several murals featured depictions of candombe drumming, past and present. When I asked a tailor if any cuerdas perform in the narrow streets near his Ciudad Vieja storefront, he dropped his scissors, fetched his own drum that he stores in his shop, and dove into an excited description—half verbal, half manual—of his own cuerda, all while someone's pants lay on the table charmingly unhemmed.
I passed a couple piles of ashes near the curb, evidence of recent cuerda activity. Back in the States, street drummers—just like roadside car carcasses—would usually be viewed as quality–of–life violations (especially with the public alcohol consumption). I remained intrigued at the cuerda's acceptance in Montevidean society.
It would be the frequency of murals, bustling central plazas, and curb–beautifying Studebakers that would begin to cast light on the popularity of the city's public percussion. And perhaps vice versa. There was an undeniable current of social electricity coursing through the streets of Montevideo, streets serving as destinations that help bond neighbors so they feel they live with the city, not just in it. In those streets, cuerdas—group efforts themselves—were born.
For the past week, I'd been in taxis blocked by cuerdas. I'd walked with cuerdas that blocked taxis. But I had yet to experience the music from the drummer's perspective.
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