THE candombe


Dibujo de una bandera

The “Candombe” is a style of music born on both the Argentine and the Uruguayan Río de la Plata coast from the mixture of American and African cultures; the latter having arrived during the time of slavery, between the Seventeenth and the Nineteenth Century.

The “Tango” is a style of music which resulted from the mixture of several types of music : the “Habanera”, the “Spanish Fandango” and the “Milonga”. It developed almost simultaneously in both countries since 1880. Its name “Tango” derives from the word “Tangó” (“Bantú” term) which means drum and according to the white ethnocentric interpretation it probably means a meeting or dance of black people.

The “Candombe” is thought to be the most ancient influence of “Tango”. There is “blackness” or “africanness” in the movement of its dancers since many of the first ones were Africans living in the slums, in brothels, in poverty or belonging to brotherhoods or to “Candombe spots”. Many of them were drum players.


“Los Mulatos” – Pedro Figari

We have found, therefore,the following definition of “Candombe”: a particular rhythm or dance, similar to the one of the Brazilian “Reisados”, “Maracatús”, “Congadas” and “Cucumbis”, all of “Bantú” origin (Congo, Equatorian Africa) (Néstor Ortiz Oderigo).
Also, we can say that “Candombe” is a parody representing the crowning of Congo kings, considering its characters, costumes and choreography. From the strictly musical point of view it is the result of three different drums sounding together producing a sort of dialoge between music, movement and dance , which goes far beyond the simple Western concept of style, genre or rhythm.

Pontet _________________ Ruben Galloza

Montevideo and Buenos Aires were two ports used for the entrance of “slave pieces”, as slave dealers called them; that is, African slaves-men and women- brought from different parts of Africa and taken mainly to the gold and silver mines of Alto Perú. On the other hand, the vast majority of them were sold for household work or to serve in the cities as travelling salesmen, craftsmen or as workers in ports, slaughterhouses or salting houses, always under extreme human conditions.

Thus, what happened then was that this rhythm started to sound in Montevideo behind the walls of the fortress and also in Buenos Aires at the back of the houses -in the third courtyards- were the slaves lived. At first it happened secretly; then, on Sundays, on holidays and on January, 6th on Saint Balthazar´s Day. Later on , the “Candombe” was played at the “Nations´ Rooms”, where Africans gathered together according to their origin and organized associations of mutual help. There they danced and played “Candombe” at the “canchas” or fields of mud known as “Tangos” or “Tambos”.

The “Tambo Congo” in 1820 -Martín Boneo ( with Rosas and little Manuelita)

As years went by the “Comparsas” appeared representing different districts. They were strictly carnival groups that, even nowadays, include drum players, “Candombe”characters (“Mama vieja”, “Gramillero” , “Escobero”) and also male and female dancers.

Guillermo Clulow

In its last stage, the “Candombe” went beyond the limits of the “Comparsa” and was adopted by both musicians and singers, due to the richness of its rhythm, the variety of its music and its freedom as regards self-expression. The “Candombe” combined with Jazz, Rock, Ballad, “Milonga” and “Tango” is considered to be the real black rhythm in both sides of the Rio de la Plata.

Its main instrument is the Drum. There are three dfferent drums, from smallest to biggest, from highest to lowest: “Chico”, “Repique” and “Piano”. Together, they form what is known as the “Cuerda de tambores”.



“Cuerda de tambores” Afro-Uruguayan

The “Candombe” was also played with different percussion nstruments such as the “mazacallas” (formed by two metal cones stuck together, filled with munitions or seads and played as “maracas”), bone “marimbas”, cow or horse jawbone and different sticks.


Yet the drum outlived them all.
Originally drums were made with barrels of “yerba mate” or coffee which were similar to logs. A piece of leather was nailed to one of its mouths and heated with fire, thus obtaining the necessary tension for the required sound. Nowadays these same drums are made with pine logs and in many cases, iron turnbuckles are added for its tuning.
The Afro-Uruguayan drum is bigger than the Afro-Argentine, it is vase-shaped and is beated with one hand and a stick. The drummer generally hangs it on his body, which allows him to walk as he plays.

“Cuerda of the “Comparsa” Kanela-Montevideo (Afro-Uruguayan drums)

The Afro-Argentine drum is cone-shaped, smaller than the Afro-Uruguayan one, opened on its bottom and drumheaded on its top. Drummers sit in circles and use both hands -no sticks- producing less volume. There is little information about the Argentine drums, just a few photos, pictures and engravings.

Bakongo Group-Buenos Aires (Afro-Argentine drums)

When talking about old “Candombes” we must take into account that no written music was left till the Twentieth Century. Apart from a few examples rescued by some musicologists, such as Lauro Ayestarán, there are just oral references of those ancient times. It was only after the beginning of the Twentieth Century that the first music scores of “milongas”, “milongones” and “tangos” appeared, including their rhythmical structure.

Therefore, we can see that the Buenos Aires “Candombe” is different to the one in Montevideo; its rhythm is similar to the one of the “milonga”, because of which it is called “milongón”. Both rhythmical patterns share the same “Bantú” origin, yet they probably came from different parts of Africa.

Afro-Argentines at a bonfire in San Juan -1938-A.G.N.

Towards the second half of the Nineteenth Century, the Afro population in the Río de la Plata decreased because of the abolition of slavery and the closure of slave trade. There were many other reasons for it such as the low rate of births and high rate of deaths due to the terrible conditions they lived under; also due to the creation of regiments exclusively formed by Afros, who took active parts in the wars of independence, even in the Triple Alliance War, dying by thousands. Also, a large amount of them were displaced from their jobs by the great European immigration till they almost disappeared.
In this way, the “Candombe” lost the people who played it and was displaced by the arrival of new European and American rhythms.Apart from that, the “Tango” gradually took away the dancers and musicians that were left, who became in many cases the first “Tango” dancers and players. Undoubtedly all these facts were a great impediment for the development of the “Candombe”, which was almost forgotten, specially in Buenos Aires, where the black population decreased noticeably in comparison to Montevideo.

It was only in the forties that some Uruguayan musicians such as Romeo Gavioli, Carmelo Imperio and Gerónimo Yorio composed testimonial pieces of “black” music.

Romeo Gavioli

Gavioli recorded with his “Tango” orchestra, adding drums, thus giving the “Tango” a most particular sound for those times : black rhythm mixed with “Tango” rhythm, which, by then was danced all over the world.

Sebastián Piana

At the same time, in Buenos Aires, Sebastián Piana, the great composer of “Tangos” and “Milongas”, gave birth to what was known as “Milonga-Candombe”. This was a “Milonga with a little bit more rhythm or a “Candombe” with a more formal structure, for example “Pena mulata”, “Carnavalera” and “Papá Baltasar”, composed with the poet Homero Manzi. Piana also composed with many other poets, such as Lucio Demare, Charlo, Francisco Lomuto, Alfredo Malerba and Francisco Canaro.

Alberto Castillo

Meanwhile, in Uruguay, the “comparsas” of black people and “lubolos” delighted an audience that anxiously looked forward to the beginning of carnival , particularly for the evening known as “Noche de llamadas”: the first Friday in carnival. All the “comparsas” in Montevideo paraded -and still do nowadays- through the streets of Barrio Sur and Palermo ( both of them black districts) showing a great display of colours, dances, costumes
and, of course, the power and synchronized rhythm of its drums, grouped in “cuerdas de tambores”. “Llamadas” is, no doubt, the great evening of the “Candombe”.

“Comparsa” Morenada with Rosa Luna-“Llamadas”1985 Montevideo

In Buenos Aires, the tradition was still kept (though many people thought it was lost), yet in places that were far less popular than in Montevideo.
Some Afro-Argentine families started to meet together on Sundays in the basement of the well known “Casa Suiza” (Swiss House), right in the centre of the city. The Shimmy Club was founded there, for everybody to dance “Rumba”, “Guaracha”, “Conga”, “Bolero” and, of course, the Buenos Aires “Candombe”, which started off with a typical shout: “oh, oh, oh, guariló…”. This happened between the forties and the sixties, at a time when the military dictatorship discouraged any sort of public or social meeting, because of which the Afros were dispersed once again as they had no longer a common meeting place.

Shimmy Club at the “Casa Suiza” - Buenos Aires

Meanwhile, during the fifties and the sixties, some Uruguayan musicians who had lived in Argentina and had planted their seed, started to take their music outside the Río de la Plata to many other countries in the world. This was the case of Lágrima Ríos, known as “La perla negra del tango” (The Black Pearl of Tango) or “La dama del candombe” (The Lady of Candombe), who became the most important female voice of Uruguayan “Candombe” (she died in 2006); also the Fattoruso Brothers, Hugo and Osvaldo, exceptional musicians who experimented with the fussion of “Candombe” with Jazz and Rock. Last but not least is Rubén Rada, the most versatile artist of the world of “Candombe”; a wonderful singer, composer and a most unpredictable showman.

Lágrima Ríos


Osvaldo Fattoruso____________________Hugo Fattoruso

Ruben “El Negro” Rada

First Century, the “Candombe” is no longer exclusively interpreted by black people - in spite of its African origin- but has gone, throughout the years, beyond the limits of “blackness” and has invited people of different colour, sex and origin to get together . Therefore, there are nowadays many white musicians , singers, composers and artists who belong to this large “Candombe family”. The only requirement to play “Candombe” is to feel it deep inside and to be willing to play it as best as possible.

“La Cuerda Trío - 2009”

In Buenos Aires there is a permanent search of Afro roots in workshops, percussion groups, “Candombe comparsas”, “murgas”, meetings and dances..There is a noticeable growth in the amount of people who are interested in “Tango” or any black music, who have no outdated prejudices and show a great artistic vocation. From this city, “La cuerda-trío” tries to join the links of a chain that splitted up without breaking, playing “Candombe” from both sides of the Río de la Plata and from all times, and also rescuing also the history of the Buenos Aires “Afros”.

We can therefore describe the “candombe” as a sort of rhythm of African origin born from the slaves who lived on both sides of the Río de la Plata and who, most probably played differently on one side and on the other. Montevideo is no doubt considered to be the “owner” of the Río de la Plata “blackness” as it has the largest amount of Afro-descendants and obviously a greater development of the “Candombe”. On the other hand, Buenos Aires is considered to be the “mother” of “Tango”, since it was in Buenos Aires where it reached its highest peak.

Jorge Algorta


____Tango - Jorge Páez Vilaró _____Cuerda (fragment) – Carlos Páez Vilaró

Translations- Graciela Arenas -