Easing Racism with Uruguay's Answer to Brazilian Samba ; Once Ignored as the Music of Poor African Slaves, the Hot Rhythms of Candombe Are Gaining in Popularity - and Uniting Blacks and Whites

Article excerpt

Young men wearing wool caps and tightly zipped jackets lay drums on their sides to tune them in front of an open fire. Sparks fly as the men toss in crumpled newspapers to keep the fire going in the frigid night air of Uruguay's unseasonably cold winter.

After the fire's heat tightens the drum skins to a common pitch, the musicians strap on their tambor drums and begin to beat out Uruguay's infectious, African-based rhythm known as candombe.

The resurgent interest in Uruguay's answer to Brazil's samba is part of what many call a broader effort to end racial discrimination and achieve political power for the nation's marginalized black people.

"Candombe has become part of the identity of the Uruguayan people: whites, blacks, and mixed race," says musician Eduardo Da Luz. At the same time, he says, the growing interest in the African roots of candombe reflects an incipient black cultural and political movement.

Candombe originated during the colonial era when African slaves brought their religious drumming, singing, and dancing to Uruguay. They played three types of tambores, drums that look a little like potbellied congas. A drummer creates unique sounds by striking the drum with both his hand and a stick.

For much of this century, candombe was only performed during Carnival and at black family events. Uruguay's white upper crust shunned the music, similar to what happened in the early days of jazz in the United States.

"A lot of Uruguayans heard candombe as a music of poor people," says Mr. Da Luz. "It took a long time for candombe to win acceptance here."

Black Uruguayans are also fighting to win acceptance, says Beatrice Ramirez, Montevideo's first black city councillor. She notes they have never been permitted to reach the upper levels of the military or business. Blacks, she says, earn 20 percent lower wages than whites for similar work.

In addition to her governmental responsibilities, Ms. …