With carnival celebrations in full swing across Montevideo, Uruguay’s African community is once again stepping out of the shadows and into the country’s spotlight. Crowds of singers, drummers, dancers, and revelers are, through a host of exorbitant celebrations, paying homage to an expressive culture brought to these shores by thousands of African slaves in the 18th century.
Las Llamadas bring joy and excitement to the streets of Montevideo / Image Source
As per tradition, the festivities began in late January with the Desfile Inaugural (Inaugural Carnival Parade) down 18 de Julio Avenue, but this was simply a precursor to the main event which kicks off tomorrow. Every year, on the first Thursday and Friday of February, musicians fill the air with African rhythms and costumed performers gyrate through Montevideo’s poorest neighbourhoods, launching a street fiesta known as ‘El Desfile de Llamadas’ (The Parade of Llamadas).
The term Llamadas – Spanish for “Calls” – refers to a time when former slaves would use drums to invite their neighbours for a gathering, whereupon they would practice religious rituals together and discuss the collective conditions under which they were living. In times of celebration, the same marginalised African societies would command the streets outside their homes and party to the sound of candombe, drawing interest from people of all ethnicities. This was the birth of Uruguay Carnival.
In the years following the emancipation of slavery, the white European immigrant population helped to keep these customs alive. Over time, both the Llamadas and candombe music have become an important part of Uruguay’s cultural identity – the country has gone from suppressing its African roots to openly embracing them.
The comparsas adorn costumes bedecked in stars and moons / Image Source
Today, Afro-Uruguayans and the white working classes parade together in groups known as comparsas, drumming and dancing in exuberant apparel as they compete to win the hearts of the crowd. Each comparsa is fronted by decorative banners showing trademark logos and slogans, while young masked performers wave an array of flags bedecked in moons, stars, and lights. These symbols hold references to Islam, the faith observed by the African slaves.
This is still very much a domestic party – not yet recognised on the international stage. Uruguay Carnival remains a strong advert for diversity, and its increasing popularity reveals that the local population wants to preserve the African influence in the region. In 2016, on the eve of the Llamadas Parades, it appears that the terms African and Uruguayan are intrinsically linked.
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If you are visiting South America for carnival this summer, we can help you enrich your travel experiences. Check out our tours and activities in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, and across Argentina.
By Simon Hall