Solo un Sol: Sounds of Montevideo


Music is part of life in Montevideo. From the youth playing guitar on the steps of Municipal and the Milonga being taught on the streets of the Saturday Mercado de Puerta, to the Candombe African-rooted drum music featured during Carnival, and a 40-night drum parade starting down seaside Barrio De Sur and stretching to neighboring Palermo, the city remembers its history and discusses its current events through music.

Carnival is proudly the longest festival in the world. The first night in January begins with an official parade of floats and cabezudos (figures with large heads), and the celebrations continue into March.

Main plaza on el 18 de Julio.
Main plaza on el 18 de Julio.
Featured are Uruguayan Murgas, or street troupes, dressed in vibrant clothing playing cymbals, snares, and bass drums.

Humorists in the Murgas also provide commentary on the year’s political and social topics by singing, dancing, and preforming comedy sketches. Though the performances occur throughout the streets, the best troupes are sent to compete in the crowded Teatro Solis and voted on for the funniest sketches. (The president is expected to attend, and to laugh along with the rest of his country.)

Candombe, the main music of Carnival, was born in the slavery districts of the city when sounds from a variety of African regions came together and formed a yearning, hopeful blend that is played not only at the carnival but in shops, at home, and on street corners throughout the year.

But Montevideo has its own daily street music. Though the street el 18 de Julio is center stage for Carnival and a main artery in Montevideo daily life, in the early winter morning it is mostly quiet: only los suspiros of pigeon wings and the rustle of magazines and papers at newsstands.

 A common sight in Montevideo: a garbage cart driven by a horse.
A common sight in Montevideo: a garbage cart driven by a horse.
Occasionally the motor roar of a string of city buses running head to tail down el 18 shakes the street, only to quickly pass and leave the muted rustles to once again envelop the sparsely trafficked street and sidewalk.

As the heat of the day wakes Montevideo, the volume rises. Business doors are opened, leading into the charla of clothing stores, panaderias, confetionerias, heladerias, and kioskos. Water fountains bubble in plazas and local artisan tents with hand-worked leather and metal chatter and laugh. A constant beat of Hola, Chau, Que Tal, Buen dia, Buenas Tardes, and besitos plays to the reunion and departure of friends, families, and classmates.

Montevideo sleeps late, and continues its song until deep into the night, with restaurants seating people at 10:00 pm (a normal dinner hour), filling the streets with bustle, laughter, and dialogue before, during, and after the dinner.

The song of Montevideo is the song of daily life, and for a few weeks we are privileged to hear and contribute a few notes.

The music of Candombe happens live every Sunday in the streets of Uruguay, and is not only confined to Carnival. In late afternoon the participants gather to prepare the leather drums by a crackling fire. They dance and play down the streets of the city, gathering men, women, and children into the streets.

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Main thoroughfare on el 18 de Julio.
Main thoroughfare on el 18 de Julio.