About Candombe

One of the most defining features of Uruguayan culture

With its deep African roots, candombe drumming is widely recognised as one of the most distinctive features of traditional Uruguayan culture. Although less well known internationally than other Latin American music of African origin (such as Afro-Cuban or Afro-Brazilian), candombe drumming possesses considerable rhythmic richness and deserves wider recognition. In 2009, in recognition of its rich history and cultural value, it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The most important and representative manifestation of candombe drumming is the llamada de tambores: a large group of drummers playing the characteristic candombe rhythm–also called ritmo de llamada–while marching through the streets. This is a traditional practice on weekends and holidays in certain parts of the city. A parade of several of these groups of drummers, together with dancers and traditional characters, all in full costume, is a very important event during the carnival celebrations.

For generations, candombe was practiced in Montevideo’s black-majority neighborhoods, but today it has been adopted by the larger society and is practiced by thousands of people throughout the country. However, it continues to be a symbol of identity for communities of African descent in Uruguay. The two neighborhoods with the longest tradition of candombe practice are Barrio Sur and Palermo, considered the cradle of the rhythm. Each has a distinctive and recognizable style of playing the rhythm, usually referred to by the names of prominent streets in each neighborhood: Cuareim and Ansina.

Essentially a folkloric form, its rhythm has also been incorporated in various ways into several genres of popular music, such as tango, canto popular (folkloric popular song), and especially into all genres derived from the so-called candombe beat.

The instrument of candombe is called tambor, which is simply the word for “drum” in Spanish. There are three different sizes, each with its own distinctive sound: chico (small, high pitched), repique (medium size and pitch), and piano (large, low pitched). All three drums are played with the dominant hand holding a stick, while the other hand strikes the drumhead with bare hands. The stick is also used to strike the shell to produce a sound called madera (“wood”). This sound is used when playing the timeline pattern, which is called madera or sometimes clave, in analogy to the Afro-Cuban clave. The ensemble of drummers is called cuerda de tambores, and in a traditional llamada it typically consists of between 20 and 60 drums (sometimes more in the carnival parade), with proportional numbers of each of the three drums. Smaller groups are also common in various settings, and the minimal cuerda has one of each of the three drums.

Each of the three drums has a different function in the rhythm and specific patterns associated with its respective registers; the candombe rhythm results from the interaction between the patterns of the three drums. An additional pattern shared by all three drums is the madera pattern or clave, which has functions similar to the timeline in Afro-Cuban and sub-Saharan African music traditions. It serves as a means of temporal organization and synchronization and is played by all the drums as an introduction and preparation for the rhythm; during the llamada, it is played only by the repique drum between phrases.