There’s more to carnival than dancing in the streets. Geoff Stellfox discovers celebration and protest coursing through the Uruguayan capital.
Small fires line either side of the street in one of the oldest sections of Montevideo. Men circle each, their brilliant blue robes and wide-brimmed hats standing in contrast to the flickering light. They’re warming the leather stretched across their wooden drums in preparation for a long night.
I pass a dancer in a bikini covering only the most essential real estate. After chatting with friends all wearing similar ensembles she takes one last drag of a cigarette, smoking down to the filter, carefully making sure the embers don’t ignite the enormous scarlet and gold tail feathers fastened to her back.
The usually sleepy neighbourhoods of Palermo and Barrio Sur are burning with life.
“Tonight is bigger than all of us!” declares a man to a troupe dressed in metallic zebra-print robes. “Tonight, you’re not just playing for yourselves – you’re representing your neighbourhood, your country and, most importantly, you’re representing Valeria. Play harder than you’ve ever done before.”
The rallying cry belongs to Juan Ramos, a battering ram of a guy who looks more like a rugby player than a musician. He’s covered in shadows, but the dim streetlights reveal a faded tattoo on the side of his shaved head that reads Mi Morena, an affectionate term loosely translating to ‘my dark-skinned girl’. It marks his allegiance to one of the city’s most respected comparsa (groups of drummers, dancers and flag-bearers) that represent different regions of Montevideo. And the Valeria mentioned in the pre-show sermon used to be one of their dancers.
Tonight is the second night of Desfile de Llamadas, a parade through Montevideo and a cornerstone of the Uruguayan carnival celebration. Each February, comparsas march in wave after wave, for the viewing pleasure of thousands of spectators lining the streets. Beautiful women shake their tail feathers to the beats of candombe, drum music that has grown from African roots and been infused with a Uruguayan flavour along the way.
Las Llamadas has a precarious duality. Today, it’s the landmark celebration of Afro-Uruguayan culture, but just a few generations ago the political climate was quite different. Then the drums were used as a means of defiance – a way for African slaves ripped from their families to hold on to their culture; a culture slave traders attempted to extinguish. Playing the drums allowed those slaves to call out to their homeland and to each other. It represented a refusal to forget their identity and a refusal to go quietly into the night.
As the group separates following Juan’s pep talk, I feel a hand clasp my shoulder. “You’re part of our family. Do not forget.”
Through hours and hours of rehearsals over the course of many years, comparsa becomes like family, experiencing the ups and downs of its members’ lives together. Together they laugh; together they grieve.
A week earlier, my phone received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number.
“If you want to experience what candombe is all about, come to the Cordón neighbourhood. We’re having a protest.”
Organised by Juan, the rally was in honour of Valeria. The former Mi Morena dancer was murdered by her police officer husband and the government is refusing to launch a formal investigation. Juan asked me to photograph the event.
“By joining, you’re becoming a part of this family,” he explained. “This is a time when we need all of our family to band together.”
A few hundred people – members of the troupe, Valeria’s family and media – gathered in the largest and most important street in Uruguay. Pouring down the road like an avalanche, they amassed more and more protesters along the way until they numbered in the thousands. Traffic stopped in both directions. Drums led the way as the heartbeat of the movement, growing louder and louder until the swell arrived at the city hall. The message pounded out by the candombe was as clear as it was back in the nineteenth century: we will not forget.
The spirit of that march is with us again at Las Llamadas tonight.
Everyone takes their position – leading the way are the flag bearers, brandishing fabric almost eight metres long. Next are the dancers, some wearing jade, full-length dresses and others adorned in gold bikinis and, finally, the drummers, clad in the silver and white suits and hats, complemented by black and white face paint.
A man sporting an official-looking badge, wearing an official-looking polo shirt motions to Juan. The comparsa in front of us has just left the staging area, and it’s almost time for us to go on.
“This is our moment! Let’s go!” Juan booms, clapping his hands three times. The gates open and we’re live.
The high timbre ‘chico’ drums in front rush in fast and hard to set the tone, and are met by the thunder of the ‘piano’ bass drum. The beat touches on something primal in the spirit, making the hair on the back of my neck rise. It’s not as elegant or refined as an orchestra, but I feel ready for action, like I could run through a brick wall. The drum beat surges through the air, travelling through our bodies into the cobblestone street.
The music hits like a tidal wave and the crowd roars to life. Dancers pull locals from the audience to join in the parade, and kids reach out, trying to touch the flags as they fly overhead. Each member of Mi Morena performs with a purpose bigger than themselves.
In the chaos I catch a glimpse of a family of small girls, all holding up photos of Valeria and a sign with our name, Mi Morena. Las Llamadas, one of Uruguay’s oldest and most significant cultural gifts, is alive and fighting, just as it has done for the past hundred years.
LATAM flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Montevideo, with stops in Auckland and Santiago. A return ticket costs about AU$1700. latam.com
Posada al Sur is a boutique bed and breakfast located in the heart of Montevideo’s historic Ciudad Vieja neighbourhood, a 10-minute walk to the Desfile de Llamadas parade route. It’s one of Uruguay’s leading sustainable hotels, supporting local artists, chefs and bakeries. Double rooms start at around AU$75. en.posadaalsur.com.uy
Desfile de Llamadas takes place in February each year. To learn more about the parade, as well other Uruguayan carnival events, visit Montevideo’s tourism homepage. descubrimontevideo.uy
Posada al Sur runs weekly Carnival walking tours, as well as tours both nights of Desfile de Llamadas, which cost AU$25. Staff members can also create private tours, depending on your interest. The Uruguayan Carnival Museum also offers tours, with packages starting at AU$60. museodelcarnaval.org