Uruguay’s Carnival Season is the longest in the world, lasting throughout the southern hemisphere summer. These festivities celebrate a combination of themes that include the abundance and playfulness of summertime; liberty, in the form of music, dance, and free expression in the streets; and irreverent social commentary as an art form. The duration through the entire summer, the irreverence and mockery, the costumes and use of masks, all emphasize the relationship of Uruguayan Carnival with the Ancient Greek Anthesteria, a wine festival during which social order was inverted, Italian Commedia dell’Arte, a popular medieval theater form, Zarzuela, from Spain, and other raucous celebrations and theatrical traditions imported from both European colonialists and the African slaves who were brought to the region by the Portuguese.
Several youth events occur before the official beginning of Uruguay’s Carnival in January that nurture up-and-coming talent. Las murgas jovenes are a contest series that occur in November, and el carnaval de las promesasfeatures the young people’s carnival parade and contests in December. Also before Carnaval de Uruguay officially begins, the queens and vice-queens of the parades that will make their way through the streets of Montevideo must be elected.
This year, the festivities began on 27 January with Desfile Inaugural del Carnaval, followed by Desfile de Llamadas on 3 and 4 February, and Desfile de Escuela de Samba on 10 February. The Carnival Parade is made up of floats, colorful costumes, music and dance, and the Samba School Parade also shares traditions that are well known in Brazil. The Parade of Calls, on the other hand, consists of traditional groups of drum lines, known asCandomberos, in an impressive show of uniquely Afro-Uruguayan culture. This Uruguayan Candombe drumming has been recognized by UNESCO as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity.
The masquerade balls are relics of the first decades of the twentieth century, when extravagant balls were held in clubs, hotel ballrooms, and theaters, although masquerade parties were also popular in homes and as street parties.
The other uniquely Uruguayan Carnival events are the musical theater contests. Outdoor stages are set up in cities around the country as well as in locations around Montevideo. There are five categories of performance groups, the most famous of which are the Murgas. A Uruguayan murga is a very specific kind of short play that is performed by group of 13 to 17 performers. Each group consists of a chorus, who recite their lines and sing a cappella multi-harmony in a very melodramatic style, accompanied by a bass drum, a snare drum, and cymbals. They are all dressed in flamboyant jester costumes, their faces either masked or painted, and the themes are satirical socio-political commentary about current events. Often, the songs that they compose become very popular with Uruguayans, as the use of murgas as a form of subversive, popular resistance during the dictatorship has given them a special status. The porteños of Buenos Aires also perform a version of the murga, but it focuses more on the dance than on the vocals.
Comparsas de negros y lubolos are another manifestation of Afro-Uruguayan culture, where blacks are joined by whites who have painted their faces black, and they perform music and dances that are linked to el candombe drumming.These groups include a dance corps, a drum line, and characters derived from African traditions, such as the Old Mother, the Medicine Man, and the Magician. Larger comparsas participate in parades, while smaller groups that perform on stage emphasize the singing component over the drumming and the dancing.
Humoristas and Parodistas are two very similar categories of musical theater. They are both comedic plays, performed in song, dance, and recitation, with the later required to be a parody of a previous work, such as a novel or a film, or a historical figure. The Parodistas have become very popular in recent years. Meanwhile, Las Revistas, which frivolously mock international journals, have gone in the opposite direction. All are clad in festive costumes, and they are very entertaining (even if your castellano uruguayo is lagging a bit behind).
The creativity, talent, and mischievous attitudes that come together in these unique celebrations make for an amazing way to experience the spirit of Uruguay.
About the author: Julie R Butler grew up near Littleton, Colorado, and received a degree in Philosophy: Values and Social Policies from the University of Colorado in Boulder. A mere six months after relocating to Honolulu, Hawaii, her fateful encounter with a certain world traveler changed her life forever. Together, the two soon flew to LA to crew on a yacht, then spent some time working in the entertainment industry, bought themselves an old Volkswagen Van, and launched a road trip that lasted for more than a decade. Traveling and living for varying lengths of time everywhere from Costa Rica to Victoria to Main to Key West, they always gravitated to the intriguing Colonial heart of Central Mexico: Lake Patzcuaro. But in time, things changed, and the constant rolling over the roads of the Americas was replaced by other travels to Tahiti and Australia. More changes upon their return led them to follow their hearts to the Latin culture that they always felt so at home in. They now live blissfully near Lago Puelo, Chubut, Argentina.
She co-edits Expat Daily News Latin America with her husband Jamie Douglas.
You can find information about Julie’s, eBooks, Nine Months in Uruguay, andNo Stranger To Strange Lands, at her blog: Connectively Speaking.
There are lots of free resources and articles on EscapeArtist about Living in Uruguay.
Other useful links to resources on Uruguay:
Vacation Rentals In Uruguay
Safe Medical Tourism in Uruguay
Self Service shipping to Uruguay