I took my first lesson with Tatita Marquez—drummer, composer, and candombe historian—in his studio, located on a stencil–sprinkled block in that apparent contradiction of a neighborhood, middle class Pocitos. Since his college years, he has been fusing candombe with electronic and other forms of music, and has toured on three continents. But for our lesson, he introduced me to the basic street–drumming patterns he grew up with, on all three candombe drums, the chico, repique, and piano—small, medium and large, respectively. His head shaven, he was all muscle and passion poking out from a tank top. "We start with wood," he said, referring to candombe's characteristic strike of the stick on the drum shell.
The accents took a crisp departure from the downbeat–intensive grooves of my days as a drummer in a punk'n'roll band some years ago. And I had never used the candombe configuration—one stick and one hand. But what slowly blossomed was an interlocking rhythm between our drums, hitting the same pleasure receptors as when biting into a complex yet well–balanced dish. Each flavor—or rhythm—complements the others in some predetermined, perfected way, the combination of which greater than the sum of its parts.
The rhythm formed a lively dialog, a food group for social animals. Fittingly, the drum parades during Carnival are called llamadas, or calls, as in calling neighbors to join the parade when it passes by.
Terroir for music
Many of them can't stand up by themselves. I'm talking about yerba mate gourds. Since Mother Nature rarely offers us fruit with flat surfaces, the gourds, when dried and fashioned into teacups, need little legs sewn onto them to keep them from falling over. Most Uruguayans have still not forsaken the old–school gourd—kind of like a handheld Studebaker—for something requiring less maintenance.
As I watched the Uruguayans clutching their mate paraphernalia while they climbed into buses, hung out in the city's plazas, or sat in the thresholds of crumbling colonial tenements, it became clear that the awkward portability of the thermos–and–gourd routine should not be mistaken for accessories to a fast–lane lifestyle. The gear is designed to allow the drinker to share tea outside the house and in the social fabric of the streets. The leisurely passing of the legless gourd from friend to friend in front of a manicured fountain seemed to reveal identity much more than inconvenience.
Only a strong sense of identity could keep an Uruguayan gripping his thermos between his arm and chest while dancing in front of a cuerda. The first time I saw this, the metaphorical implications were inescapable: his arm out as if holding a partner, giving the image of a dancing couple, man and thermos, spinning together. By my last drum lesson, the effect of identity had colored the mood more than the lime–green walls of Tatita's studio. He taught me three different but related rhythms that have originated in three neighborhoods. The districts—Barrio Sur, Palermo, Cordon—are close to one another; in a half–hour walk, you could hit them all. But each rhythm has its own feel: the accelerated speed in Cordon, the extra accent on the chico in Palermo. Terroir for music.
Tatita was born in Palermo, a neighborhood where Afro–Uruguayans started marching candombe drums through the streets in the 1940s. Apparently, no womb within earshot has been immune to the tug of rhythms that eventually leaped over the walls of racism. I asked the thirty–five–year–old Tatita how long he has been playing; with a confident nod, he answered, "thirty–five years." Mental picture drawn: a tyke–sized drum strapped onto a tyke–sized Tatita.
The grownup Tatita related stories of how the military dictatorship, from 1973 to 1984, would throw someone in jail for playing drums in the streets, except during a few allowed fiestas. With the return of street drumming, the dialog of candombe rhythms is changing, as all living languages do. Some groups are starting to play different claves, or basic rhythm keys. "People prefer the new breaks," he commented. He switched to English, for emphasis, and added, "Some think their candombe died, but it is the evolution of candombe."
If it weren't for evolution, we would have neither tango nor candombe. Both styles find common roots in African rhythms, but diverged over a century ago. Tango acquired European instrumentation and melodies, and candombe simplified the clave while becoming the percussive backbone of many Uruguayan jazz and rock recordings.
He offered me a gourd filled to the top with loose tea. The metal straw resembled a little oboe reed, preventing the water from being slurped, thus keeping it hot. After one sip, my head felt like a giant tea bag that had been stuffed with freshly mowed grass and oregano, and I had somehow willingly dunked myself in a bucket of hot water. Tatita snickered, not the laughing–with–you kind.
I hesitated. He returned to the same didactic seriousness as when teaching me how to spread my fingers to strike a bass note on the piano. "You have to finish it," he said.
Some facets of Uruguayan identity are more easily understood than others.
Can you pass me some tannat?
Sundays are usually calm in Latin America. Not in Montevideo. Starting at sunrise, the city's largest street market bursts with musty Carlos Gardel LPs, machetes, albino puppies, tomatoes, thermos–clenching elbows. By late afternoon, the restaurant parrillas will have seared over a ton of steak. As if refusing to acknowledge that the weekend is ending, Sunday nights are the biggest for cuerdas.
One of the most popular is La Melaza, an all–female group. While almost every cuerda has at least a few women, the ratio still tips heavily in the direction of men, hence the formation of La Melaza (they do, however, encourage male drummers to join them the last week each month).
How large is La Melaza? When I approached the dead end where the drums sat around a fire, I asked a young member crouching in comfy sweatpants, her fingers taped up. "Maybe forty this time," she said, "but it depends on who shows up. You can always count the drums."
When the group lined up and began marching, I became part of a throng following the drummers. The fans outnumbered the drummers two to one. I ran into Lalo, who corrected me when he spotted me walking behind the cuerda. Walking? That's a no–no. "Step like this," Lalo commanded, stomping on the quarter notes, so that we all formed one inseparable gust of humanity, together with the thermos dancers, the synchronized hands slapping chico drums, and the occasional fan squatting and pissing in the middle of the street.
Cartons of wine made from tannat, a grape common in Uruguayan wineries, made their way around. I'm sure there is an interesting story that explains why candombe drums are usually played with just one stick, but a few drummers demonstrated another incentive: you can keep the beat with the stick and still grab a swig from the carton when it comes by.
Uruguayan musician Hugo Fattoruso kicks off the first track of his jazz–candombe album Emotivo with a spirited narration of his country's candombe heritage, celebrating candombe's "calor de piel," or heat of the skin, which can conveniently refer to the drumhead, the hands, or both. As I fielded a carton of tannat, the buildings locked in said warmth like a blanket, wrapping it around me, around the drummers, around the residents dancing on the balconies. Coming from the often fragmented social landscape of New York, I was overwhelmed, but also enchanted—comfortably adrift in a people connected to each other, a people connected to a city. A city where drums contribute to the quality of life.
* * *
The week before I had arrived in Montevideo, I met an Uruguayan student outside a sausage cart in Panama City. "I've been living in Panama for three years now, but I still hear the drums in my head every Sunday night," he remarked. A rather romantic statement, I thought. And one that resurfaced when I was in a taxi going to the airport for my departure from Uruguay. The driver handed me some crackers, the most humble of the many edible offerings the Uruguayans had shared with me. Then I realized what I was doing. I was chewing in the rhythm of the clave.
In his hometown of New York City, Darrin DuFord practices on a drum set in a soundproofed studio to keep neighborly relations smooth. His book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. A past contributor to Perceptive Travel, he has also contributed articles to Transitions Abroad, World Hum, and GoNomad. Read his latest travel pieces and recipes on his web site, www.OmnivorousTraveler.com.
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