jueves, 6 de enero de 2011

Parade of Calls - The Grandest Party of Afro-Uruguayan Culture

The “Parade of Calls” is the most original manifestation of Afro-Uruguayan culture. During two nights of  carnival, dance groups parade through the narrow streets of Sur and Palermo neighborhoods; these areas have historically encompassed tenements and the homes of the descendants of African immigrants. This year, the parade is being held on February 3rd and February 4th.
Originally, the calls were part of a ritual that gathered both slaves and freedmen outside the city walls. The drums convened —or ‘called,’ thus their name— people to gather to the rhythm of candombe and the classic characters of the gramillero (the shaman of the tribe), the broom man (escobero) and the old mother (mamá vieja) were added to the mix. Blacks incorporated these elements to the parade of dancing groups in Montevideo’s carnival and their mark is what subsists most visibly in the “calls”. The population of African descent (estimated at about 10 %) participated in the parades of white dance groups, but many whites painted themselves black to integrate the groups that, since then, have preserved the legacy of candombe, hailing from Af rica . The success attained by the black dance groups in carnival celebrations at the end of t h e 19 th century turned them into groups composed of blacks and lubolos (whites painted black).

At present, the Parade of Calls is organized by the Department of Tourism of the municipality of Montevideo. Chairs are placed the length of the route, terraced seating at the corners and an of ficial box for the authorities and the jur y chosen to evaluate the costumes, the quality of the dancing, set designs, compliance with the ritual and the sound of the drums. The public has to pay an entry fee and access streets are solidly blocked of f. For years, the lucky owners of the homes located on the parade’s route have rented out balconies and rooftops to locals as well as tourists from the Americas and Europe.

Going behind the fence is like immersing oneself in a marvelous world of rhythm and colors. What is most impressive is how close the spectacle is; one is inside of it and does not look from far away but rather participates. The street is so narrow that sitting on its edge, I have to be careful that those parading will not step on me. The flags from the dance groups seem like gigantic sheets that ripple and play with the public, ruffling our hair, in a game where people challenge and yell: “Oleeé.”

The dancing girls look for photographers —all of them on their cell phones— and stop for an instant to pose for those they decide to favor. A child escaping f rom the public gets tangled up between the legs of one of these girls, who laughs without stopping her dance. The fat mamás viejas dancing with their heads wrapped in scarves, their necklaces, their polka dot skirts and their endless layers of petticoats, flirt with the escoberos with their long white cotton beards, while the gramilleros feign scolding them. Behind the dancers, the drums thunder ; candombe reverberates on the stomach and it is impossible to stay still. Every so often, a spectator invades the street to exhibit his or her dancing abilities with one of the showgirls or to take pictures with some character from the group.

Once more, Uruguay proves surprising: the magic of the integrated country, where cultural traditions from diverse origins mix with a festive and contagious spirit, with a perfect balance between organization and spontaneity. In the Parade of Calls, there are no age, social class, race or religion differences, neither among the participants nor among the spectators. As Joan Manuel Serrat’s song: “Today the nobleman and the peasant / the great man and the low / dance and give their hands to each other / disregarding appearances.”

Today, the street is a party.


During the last Parade of Calls, we wanted to share the experiences of the participants. Bernardo, a systems analyst participating for the first time, invited us to the club where a mid-sized group of close to sixty drums, called “Al Toque Cardal,” was rehearsing. There was a total of about one hundred  participants. The day was bright, it was not too hot and a slight breeze was blowing. We arrived at the Rápido Sport club a bit af ter five p.m. The dance group was parading that night and the club was a center of feverish activity.

The previous Saturday, the drums had been painted on the sidewalk with the colors of the group. There are three types of drums: the chico, the repique and the piano. The most famous star of the group was María Julia Muñoz, Public Health Minister during the outgoing administration. Bernardo said they had practiced every Saturday for one whole year and every day for the last week. A fourth of the hall was taken over by the drums, painted red and yellow. The ambiance was relaxed, with participants arriving and saying hello to each other, since everybody knew everyone else. Some sat in groups, while others milled about, some already wearing their makeup and others waiting for their turn before the makeup artists hired for the occasion.

They had rented two buses for the members and a truck for the drums. We arrived at the designated corner at ten p.m. on the dot, one block from the fence where the group would enter. The arrival was pure chaos and happiness. They were talking, taking pictures with their cell phones. As they got their instruments at the foot of the truck, the drummers started to play and everybody began to practice their moves.

They lit a bonfire by the sidewalk. About twenty drums were placed close to it. That evening, it was not necessary to heat up the leather on the drums, because it was not humid (the skin that covers the drums stretches and sounds better once it is heated up). At present, the majority of drums are equipped with screws and the leather pieces are stretched by adjusting them, but the leather secured with nails on traditional drums must be heated up. I was told about a traditional group where all the drums have nails, as in olden times.

Many onlookers gathered to watch from behind the scene. I approached an Asian couple. They were tourists from Hong Kong who had crossed over from Buenos Aires and they were thrilled. The previous day they had witnessed the show from the public stands and today they had come to see what went on backstage. I asked them what got their attention and they said they liked how everyone, young and old, took part in the event. They said these were happy people that liked to dance and to sing. They had had a hard time getting there and I asked them if they were afraid at any given time. Their answer was an inequivocal no ; they felt safe. They kept saying how the people were happy and very nice. So nice…

In the meantime, ever ything had been put in order. The organizers had moved quickly. The lady minister was just one more participant among the drum players. With her dominó tunic and her hat, she was unrecognizable. There was no special treatment for her as she was f rom the neighborhood and had participated in the dance group prior to becoming a minister.

Each member had taken his or her corresponding place in the dance group and the only thing they were waiting for was the signal to go in. I walked among the men, women and children with their faces painted with brillantina and wearing their multicolored costumes, among thundering drums, bright flags and standards. The moment they had been preparing for so many months had arrived and they were happily and anxiously living it.

When their turn came, the part y started for them, a party that ended a long time after they got to the end of the route, exhausted and even more excited than they had felt at the starting point.

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