Candombe is a form of Uruguayan music based on African-style drum rhythms (and an associated dance) that was developed by people of African heritage in the early 1800’s.
In candombe there are three types of tambores (drums). The largest tambor, called a “tambor piano”, has the deepest sound. The middle sized drum is the “tambor repique”, which provides the main rhythm. Then, there is a small drum called “tambor chica” with the highest pitch.
Each drum requires a separate drummer. Drummers wear their drum by a wide strap so they can play while parading. The drums are played with one hand and one drumstick.
Each of the three drum types must be represented to form a complete candombe group, which is called a cuerda. A cuerda can range in size from three drummers (the minimum) to a couple of dozen, or more.
Cuerdas are most numerous in Montevideo, but are also active in many communities throughout Uruguay.
Small cuerdas of three can sometimes be seen playing for tips in popular tourism areas in Montevideo and Punta del Este during the summer months. Larger neighborhood cuerdas of one to two dozen drummers can often be seen (and heard) practicing together and sometimes parading in their local neighborhoods. The cuerda will sometimes build a fire on the street, using the heat to tune their drums.
Cuerdas are usually members of carnival parade groups known as comparsas. A comparsa is a Uruguayan music parade tradition with a cast of standard carnival characters, which include persons waving large flags and others holding images of a moon or stars on poles, a group of female dancers, an old man and an old woman, a man holding a stick or broom, AND a cuerda of candombe drummers.
During Carnival season comparsas go from town to town to participate in local carnival parades. The largest and most popular of these parades is Las Llamadas (the calls) in Montevideo.
Although Candombe groups today are comprised by people of many different racial and cultural backgrounds, the Candombe drum rhythm as a Uruguayan music form, its associated dance, and the costumes worn by cuerdas in Carnival parades, all remain a conscious tribute to the heritage of African-Uruguayans.