Thursday, February 14, 2008

Barnum and Bailey? No! La Carnaval!

If you had to sum up La Carnaval in one word (you couldn’t, but if you had to…) it would be: people. Lots of people. Now it’s not even close to the craziness of the Carnival in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I read a couple of weeks ago that things have gotten so bad in these metropolises that the candombe drum groups have to keep their performance times and places secret and only depend on people hearing the drumming and coming to watch. If they revealed where they would be, the crowds would be disastrous. They’ve had cases of riots breaking out, or on the other side of things, people making love in the streets. Naturally this is due mostly in part to the large amounts of alcohol people consume during this time.
The Uruguayan Carnaval claims to be the longest in the world, supposedly lasting over a month, but I guess we’ve only seen some the bigger events. I think the entire month is a big holiday/vacation time for most people. For what little I know of the history, the tradition has it’s roots in Africa from the many slaves that were brought to South America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their desire the retain their culture, as well as a desire to escape from the hardships of slave labor influenced the beginnings of candombe music and dancing. These traditions are expressed today in the parades, music, and dancing of carnival. (For more in depth, and probably more accurate information, you’ll have to search the internet on your own.)

Some of the events our group attended:

The opening parade to kick off the Carnaval happed the first week we were here and we went to watch it on 18 de Julio (the main drag in Montevideo). I may have mentioned something about it before, but I’ll show more pictures now. The parade was filled with floats of all sizes and shapes and colors representing different organizations and groups. Some dancing and singing groups accompanied the floats down the calle (street) with very comical routines and music. I think these are what they call murgas, or singing groups of the Carnaval. In addition to having extravagant costumes and presentations, if you understood Spanish, their songs are filled with witty social commentary and political satire. Unfortunately I was not one of those able to understand the jokes going on around me.

Also happening within the last couple of weeks was the festival of Iemanja. She is the Lady of the Sea (ironically stated since she came from the widest river in the world: the Rio de la Plata or the River Plate) who supposedly came out of the water at Playa Ramirez (Ramirez beach) to bless the people of Montevideo and now watches over them. I’m still a little confused over what kind of religion this has become because we saw some sort of priests/esses blesses people and brushing their worries or cares off of them. We asked some Uruguayans that we know and they said the tradition is a big mix of Catholicism and pagan religions. This mixing of religions was very common in the colonization of South America as the Spanish attempted to impose the Catholic religion upon the indigenous people of the area. At the festival, people ask Iemanja to bless them by lighting candles on the beach and building foam boats and floating them out on the water with offerings of food and drink on them. In addition to the boats and candles and random priests, we saw some different forms of music: usually drum and vocals. But, on our way back home we saw a group of Native American dancers and musicians. I felt like I was back in Montana again!

Finally, last Thursday and Friday we attended Las Llamadas. To the best of my knowledge it’s a big contest between different llamadas groups which consist of flagmen, dancers, the drummers, and the support crowd (which seemed to be either friends of the group or even carried extra drums if one of them breaks!). The drum music was intense and the rhythm vibrated your whole body. There were a ton of people there too. On Thursday night we went and couldn’t find a spot to see the show so we climbed the back of some stadium seating until we were told to get down by a policeman. Then on Friday, we forced our way onto the sidewalks beside the street where the performance was and got pretty close to the show. Uruguayans definitely have a different sense of personal space than Americans. There is no “bubble” and if you want to squeeze through the crowd, that’s exactly what you do: you push and shove and squeeze through the crowd. After we decided we had seen enough, we started to leave only to be caught in a downpour! We huddled under an overhanging roof until most of it stopped and then pushed on back toward the house.

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