Afro-Uruguayan" refers to Uruguayans of Black African ancestry ( "Afrodescendientes"). They are estimated to be about 190,000 and constitutes 10% of the population according to UN and World Bank Reports. They are mainly concentrated in the city of Montevideo. The blacks came to Uruguay as slaves, ladinos--hispanized slaves, in 1534, but eventually settled in Argentina.

A woman dressed as a Mama Vieja character, center, dances candombe a traditional Afro-Uruguayan rhythm during the Las Llamadas carnival parade in Montevideo, Uruguay,Friday, Feb. 4, 2011. Candombe is an Uruguayan rhythm and its roots can be traced back to the 1700's when African slaves were brought to Uruguay.

 In his book " Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay," George Reid Andrews aver that the beauty of Blackness in the White Nation of Uruguay lies in the compelling history of candombe (African music and dance) and in particular the way candombe signify the relationship between blackness and national consciousness in Uruguay and throughout the Americas comparatively.
African spirits of Uruguay
Beautiful Afro-Uruguayan lady dancer in costume waits for the parade to begin. Costumes reflect themes such as tribal warriors, African animals, the civil rights movement and slavery.

Economically they remain among the poorest sectors of Uruguayan society: most are non-qualified workers employed in the construction industry, domestic service, or cleaning and porter services. There is high unemployment among young Afro-Uruguayans.

                            Afro-Uruguayan man

When we think of the great nations of the African diaspora—Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, the United States—the South American republic of Uruguay is not one of the first names to come to mind.  To the contrary: the recipient of almost 600,000 European immigrants between 1880 and 1930, Uruguay has long presented itself to the world as one of the two “white republics” of South America (its neighbor Argentina is the other).  In the national household survey of 1996, 93 percent of its citizens classified themselves as white, a figure significantly higher than in the United States (where 75 percent of the population classified itself as white in the 2000 census).

Yet in common with other Latin American countries, during the last 25 years Uruguay has experienced a significant upsurge in black civic and political mobilization.  Organizations such as Mundo Afro (Afro World), the Asociación Cultural y Social Uruguay Negro, the Centro Cultural por la Paz y la Integración, Africanía, and others have pressed the nation to acknowledge its black past and present and to work toward the full integration of its black and indigenous minorities into national life.

These recent organizations are the latest chapter in a long history of black mobilization that began in the early 1800s with the salas de nación, mutual aid societies organized on the basis of members’ African origins.  Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, was a required port of call for slave ships bringing Africans to the Río de la Plata region.  Most of those Africans continued on to Argentina, but during the late 1700s and early 1800s some 20,000 disembarked in Montevideo and remained in Uruguay.  By 1800 the national population was an estimated 25 percent African and Afro-Uruguayan.

                                Afro-Uruguayan rastafarian

In the early 1830s, the African nations' occasional legal representative, Afro-Uruguayan lawyer Jacinto Ventura de Molina, listed thirteen such organizations (salas de nación)  active in the city of Montevideo. Six derived from West Africa—the Ausá (Hausa), Carabarí (Calabar), Minas-Maxi, Moros, Nagó y Tacuá (Yoruba), and Santé (Ashanti) and  five from the Congo and Angola, and two from East Africa. The salas bought or rented plots of land outside the city walls, on which they built headquarters to house their religious observances, meetings, and dances. They collected money for emancipation funds to buy the freedom of slave members, lobbied public officials, and provided assistance in disputes and conflicts between slaves and their owners.
A typical ‘mama vieja’ (‘old mother) takes part in the ‘llamadas’ in one of the Uruguay Carnival’s main parades on 6 February, 2009. Uruguay celebrates the carnival for more than a month with a series of parades and contests.
    A typical ‘mama vieja’ (‘old mother) takes part in the ‘llamadas’ in one of the Uruguay Carnival’s main parades on 6 February, 2009. Uruguay celebrates the carnival for more than a month with a series of parades and contests.

Free and slave Africans and Afro-Uruguayans served in large numbers in the independence wars of the 1810s and 20s and in the civil wars of the 1830s, 1840s, and the second half of the 1800s.  Slave military service was rewarded first by the Free Womb law of 1825 (under which children of slave mothers were born free, though obligated to serve their mother’s master until they reached the age of majority) and then the final abolition of slavery in 1842.

Once free, Africans and Afro-Uruguayans demanded the full civic and legal equality guaranteed by the Constitution of 1830.  In theory, these rights applied equally to all citizens; but in practice, Afro-Uruguayans faced pervasive discrimination and racial prejudice.  In response, Afro-Uruguayans created the most active (on a per capita basis) black press anywhere in Latin America.  Between 1870 and 1950 black journalists and intellectuals published at least twenty-five newspapers and magazines in Montevideo and other cities.  This compares to between forty and fifty black-oriented periodicals during the same period in Brazil, where the black population is today some 400 times larger than Uruguay’s; and fourteen in Cuba (black population twenty times larger than Uruguay’s).
                                                            Afro-Uruguayan soldier

This flourishing of Afro-Uruguayan journalism was at least in part a reflection of the country’s economic and educational achievements during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Exports of meat and wool formed the basis of one of South America’s most successful national economies.  By 1913, Uruguay had the highest per capita GNP and tax receipts, the lowest birth and death rates, and the highest rates of literacy and newspaper readership, anywhere in Latin America.  National educational reforms in the 1870s and early 1900s made Uruguay a regional leader in educational achievement; under these conditions, Afro-Uruguayans were far more literate than their counterparts in, for example, Brazil.

Relatively high educational achievement in Uruguay provided favorable conditions for an active black press, as well as for Afro-Uruguayan social and civic organizations more generally.  Afro-Uruguayans formed social clubs, political clubs, dancing and recreational groups, literary and drama societies, civic organizations, and in 1936 a black political party, the Partido Autóctono Negro (PAN).  The PAN was one of three such parties in Latin America, the other two being in Cuba (the Partido Independiente de Color, 1908-12) and Brazil (the Frente Negra Brasileira, 1931-38).  The PIC and FNB were both eventually outlawed by their respective national governments; the PAN, by contrast, was permitted to function freely but never succeeded in attracting significant electoral support.  During the 1800s and most of the 1900s, Uruguayan politics was dominated by two main parties, the Blancos and Colorados.  Afro-Uruguayan voters split their allegiances between those parties, with most favoring the Colorados. Unable to make any inroads into that two-party system, the PAN disbanded in 1944.

Noelia Maciel – Afro-Uruguayan Movement UBUNTU/Afro-descendant Assembly (Uruguay)

During the 1940s and 1950s Uruguay experienced its most intense period of economic growth and expansion.  Exports to the Allies during World War II, to a shattered Europe in the years after the war, and to the US during the Korean War, sustained a boom period remembered today as a golden age, the years of “como Uruguay no hay” (there’s no place like Uruguay), a semi-official slogan at the time.  Those years should have provided ideal conditions for black upward mobility; but prejudice and discrimination continued to obstruct black advancement.  A celebrated case of discrimination in 1956, in which an Afro-Uruguayan schoolteacher suffered blatant harassment from two principals at schools to which she was assigned, provoked a national debate on racial conditions in the country.  A journalist investigating employment conditions in Montevideo at that time found that of 15,000 service workers (hairdressers, waiters, hotel chambermaids, bus drivers, etc.) in the city, only eleven were Afro-Uruguayan—less than one per thousand in a city that was probably 5-6 percent Afro-Uruguayan.  The country’s leading university, the publicly funded Universidad de la República, was found to have awarded degrees to only five Afro-Uruguayans between 1900 and 1950.

                                  Afro-Uruguayan man

Conditions had apparently changed little by 1980, when a Uruguayan writer reported that in the downtown commercial districts of Montevideo, “in dozens and dozens of shops, the total number of black employees does not reach ten…  There are no black hairdressers… Except for very low-class bars, there are no black waiters, nor in hotels, restaurants, or cafes.”  During the 1980s and 90s, however, Uruguay experienced the same wave of black civic mobilization that swept over much of Latin America at that time.  In Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and other countries, Afro-Latin Americans organized to combat racism and discrimination.  The most important such group in Uruguay was Mundo Afro, founded in 1988.

Demanding that Uruguay recognize its black minority as an equal member of the national community, Mundo Afro successfully lobbied the national government to gather racial data (for the first time since 1852) in the national household surveys of 1996 and 2006.  Those surveys showed Afro-Uruguayans constituting either 6 percent (1996) or 9 percent (2006) of the national population (3.3 million in 2006).  And as in Brazil and the United States, where racial data are routinely included in national censuses, the two surveys left no doubt concerning levels of racial inequality in the country.  Afro-Uruguayan incomes are on average 60 percent of white earnings; whites are twice as likely as blacks to have a university degree; black poverty rates are double those of whites; black unemployment rates are 50 percent higher; and so on.

                   Afro-Uruguayan woman holding guinea fowl,Montevideo,Uruguay

In the face of such conclusive data, and in preparation for the 2001 U.N. Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Xenophobia, held in South Africa, Uruguay’s government committed itself to policies aimed at combating racial discrimination and inequality.  In 2003 the municipal government of Montevideo created an advisory Unit for Afro-Descendent Rights; at the national level, President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-10) appointed a presidential advisor for Afro-Uruguayan affairs and created programs for Afro-Uruguayan women and Afro-Uruguayan youth in the Ministry of Social Development.

In the meantime, check out the 5-minute preview/promo of Afro-Uruguay: Forward Together, below:


(Iris Films, a non profit media company, that produces socially and culturally relevant content is behind an upcoming documentary titled Afro-Uruguay: Forward Together, that takes a look at what it describes as the little-known history and contemporary experience of "afrodescendientes" (people of African descent) in Uruguay.)

Afro-Uruguayans are devotees of Umbanda religion and perform annual worship at the seaside for Yemanja,the goddess of the sea.

Paralleling and at times converging with the history of Afro-Uruguayan civic mobilization is the history of Afro-Uruguayans’ role in creating Uruguayan popular culture.  To summarize very briefly, one of the principal functions carried out by the African salas de nación in the first half of the 1800s was to hold candombes, public dances for their members.  In the 1860s and 1870s, the Africans’ Uruguayan-born children and grandchildren combined African musical elements (particularly the use of African drums and other percussion instruments) with instruments, chords, and rhythms from Europe and the Caribbean (especially Cuba) to create a new musical form called both tango and candombe.

     The candombe is a drum-based musical rhythm which originated in Uruguay’s African population during the 19th century, based on traditional African Bantu drumming. A group dances to the candombe rhythm in Montevideo.

This new, syncopated music proved wildly popular—so popular that young white men wanted to get into the act as well, creating their own tangos and candombes.  The vehicle through which they did so were the comparsas: musical groups that paraded in Carnival each February and March, playing music composed especially for those events.  Seeking to imitate their black models, the white comparsas paraded in blackface make-up and “African” costumes.  The result was a “troubling hall of mirrors,” to quote historian John Chasteen, in which white performers imitated blacks while black performers in turn imitated whites’ imitation of blacks.

A Mama Vieja (old mother) and Gramillero dance in the parade of Llamadas in Montevideo. One of the most important elements of Carnival in Uruguay is Candombe, an African drum rhythm played on tambor drums. It was revitalized in the Americas by black slave descendants as a way by which to reclaim their cultural heritage and battle for civil rights.

By 1900, previously segregated black and white comparsas had fused into racially integrated groups that in most cases were, and are today, majority white in composition.  They present themselves to the Montevideo public as sociedades de negros, “black” drummers, singers, and dancers performing the “black” music of candombe.  In so doing, they have become the most popular and applauded element of Montevideo’s Carnival.  But the images of black life that they present hark back a century or more to racial stereotypes dating from the late 1800s.  Blackness is presented in highly sexualized ways and as having a special relationship to primitive powers of rhythm, dance, magic, and sex.

The worlds of politics and candombe have often intersected.  Some of the best-known comparsas have been closely tied to the Colorado party; in the 1960s groups of candombe drummers appeared with Afro-Uruguayan Senator Alba Roballo in her electoral campaigns.  In 2006, Afro-Uruguayan Congressman Edgardo Ortuño proposed the creation of a national holiday, the Day of Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Culture, and Racial Equality.  Conceived as a Uruguayan version of similar commemorations in the United States (Martin Luther King Day) and Brazil (Black Consciousness Day), the Day of Candombe (celebrated on December 3) is intended to provide space for a day of reflection on racial conditions in Uruguay and the road remaining to be traveled to achieve true racial equality.  Whether the holiday will serve that purpose remains to be seen; but certainly it provides clear evidence, if any were needed, of the centrality of candombe and Afro-Uruguayan culture in Uruguayan national life.


  Uruguay: Spirit of Afro Resistance Alive in Candombe 
by Marie Trigona.

In the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, Afro-Uruguayans celebrate an often-ignored part of their history - Candombe and resistance. For more than 200 years Afro descendants have maintained the tradition of Candombe, a rhythm that traveled from Africa to Uruguay with African slaves. The music carries centuries of resistance and liberation.
                   Candombe troupe, Isla de Flores Comparsa in Barrio Sur

The word Candombe literally means "place and dance of Africans." The musical tradition evolved during the colonial area. Africans brought to Uruguay for slave labor used the rhythm of the tambores, or drums, to communicate with each other and defy colonialists.
Today the music thrives in Montevideo's working class neighborhoods, where African descendants have kept alive the tradition of the Llamadas, parades where Candombe is played. Candombe drummer Mitchel Navos says that Candombe didn't originate in Africa, but with Afro-descendants in Montevideo. "Candombe is specifically from Montevideo. Candombe like Montevideo's Candombe doesn't exist in any other part of the world." He also asserts that Candombe's spirit has been passed down for generations despite a historical void surrounding the music's origins.

Origins of Candombe

Montevideo's colonial district is the birthplace of Uruguay's Candombe music. Africans from the Southern and Western regions (Bantú regions which include Congo, Angola and Mozambique) were brought to Uruguay and Argentina through the slave trade beginning in 1750. "Africans arriving from the Bantú region brought with them the Candombe rhythm," explains Navos. "Being from different nations and regions, they didn't have the possibility of communicating through language."

                                        Afro-Uruguayan candombe dancers

In whatever time their white masters allowed, slaves communicated through drums and dance. The first Llamadas took place at this time. Some historians assert that the word Llamadas - "parade of calls," refers to the drums Africans played to call out to each other in their homes. Each tribe had a particular rhythm that could be identified from afar.

Within these living quarters, African musicians gave birth to a rhythm and tradition which has been passed on for generations. Martin Silva is a young musician from Montevideo's Barrio Sur. His grandparents taught him the Candombe rhythm and the origins of Candombe. "Before the llamadas were held in Ansinas, which was a conventillo or a housing complex here on Isla de Flores and nearby streets. It was a huge housing complex where hundreds of families lived. The llamadas were held there, they paraded inside. It was a different kind of festivity. It's not the same as today."

Afro-Uruguayan A dancer and drummers join in the ‘llamadas’ in one of the Uruguay Carnival’s main parades. The carnival is renowned for its month-long festival of parades and contests.

Upper class whites tried to ban Candombe gatherings in the 19th century.  One of the earliest historical documents tracing Candombe music is an 1808 police record, when citizens of Montevideo requested that these dances be severely repressed and completely prohibited. Afro descendants  took their music underground, to defy the oppressive conditions of slavery.
                         Afro-Uruguayan candombe drummers

"We can't refer to anything before 1900 with historical certainty," explains Navos. There exists an extensive historical void regarding Candombe practices between 1800 and 1900. "What exists today is what we could hide and preserve, which has led to the transformation of Candombe in what it is today, from generation to generation," he continues.
"Barrio Sur and Palermo were where the meat curing plants were located. Many of the black slaves had to work in the meat curing plants, but also many lived in the curing plants. That's where music from Africa mixed with Catholicism." Many historians assert that the first Llamadas took place in clandestine music halls, until they went public with the abolishment of slavery in the late 19th century.  "The first Llamadas held was a procession from the Meat curing plants toward Montevideo's main cathedral, in the Old part of the city. In commemoration of Day of the Kings, they made a procession to give a tribute to the Catholic Saints of the Masters. That's when Western Traditions got mixed in. That's when the term Llamadas, or walking procession, came to be. Before it wasn't about walking in the streets, it was held in a hall or like a band performance."

Symbols of Afro descendants' painful past
     Afro-Uruguayan girl dancing to candombe. Candombe Troupes are made of dancers and drummers

The dance and music are filled with symbols of African descendants' painful past. The troupes the perform the Llamadas are called comparsas, and are made up of cuerdas (drummers) and dancers. The drummers walk very slowly, barely separating their feet as they walk. This rhythm and style of procession is meant to symbolize Afro-descendants' past and historical roots when their ancestors were made to walk with chains and shackles.

Three main characters lead the llamadas: the Mama Vieja (Grandmother), Gramillero (Old Doctor), and Escobero (Wizard).  The Gramillero walks with a cane as if he's about to fall over. The Mama Vieja carries an umbrella attending to the Grammillero. The Escobero sweeps the ground with a great baton.
Navos describes the significance of these three characters. "The Escobero, I don't know if he's a magician or wizard, he's the person in charge of taking charge of the spirit of the comparsa. The Escobero walks in front of the flags to clean the bad spirits opening the way for the comparsa."
         The Gramillero and Mama Vieja symbolize two key figures in Afro-Uruguayan history

The Gramillero and Mama Vieja symbolize two key figures in Afro-Uruguayan history: the old doctor who uses medicinal herbs to cure and the grandmother, the matriarchal figure. Navos explains the significance of those characters. "Those characters are as important to us as our grandparents. In a family they are the roots. They are the oldest people in the comparsa. Their dance is about that. Simulating the pain in their slow dance, there's an expression of fatigue in their dance."

                      A Mama Vieja dances, accompanied by a Gramillero.

Candombe as a cultural tool

Some of the city's Candombe troops feature more than 50 drummers and dozens of dancers. Each neighborhood has its own rhythm and style. In Barrio Sur, where slaves took the music underground in the 19th century, new Candombe troops are emerging today.

                     Old Afro-Uruguayan Candombe dancers

According to Mario Suarez a young musician playing a traditional African drum in the Isla de Flores comparsa, the Llamadas is more than a performance. "The Llamadas and Candombe for the Afro descendants are a passion and a tradition. We have to maintain the tradition. The identity of the comparsa of Isla de Flores is strong, because it's part of the identity barrio Ansinas and Barrio Sur. The first Llamadas took place here in the barrio Ansinas and the barrio Sur."

Today Afro-Uruguayans number around 100,000, or about 6 percent of the population. For many Uruguayans of Afro descent, Candombe is part of everyday life and resistance in a continually discriminating society. The Llamadas ispracticed all year long, not just during Carnival. Uruguayans have also adopted the increasingly popular Candombe music as part of their national identity. Especially in the past 30 years, the music has influenced White musicians. The music was used to express resistance to the repressive regime during Uruguay's bloody military junta from 1973-1984.  Today, Candombe isn't just heard in Montevideo but has spread to Uruguay's interior and echoes in Argentina.
                         New Afro-Uruguayan Candombe troupes are emerging today

"Candombe is not only a question of skin color, it's a way of thinking and being," says Diego Bonga Martinez from the Afro-cultural movement in Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires, the Llamadas have been continually repressed by police and government officials. Martinez adds, "Candombe is a cultural weapon we have used to defend ourselves with, for our culture to live on."  From the size and sound of the growing number of comparsas participating in the Llamadas in Montevideo, this tradition will be passed on for generations to come. (source:

                      Beautiful Afro-Uruguayan lady

Faces of Afro-Uruguayan Candombe Carnival 

The carnival tradition can be traced to approximately 4,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, through the period of the Roman Empire, surviving the Middle Ages and then merging with the dances and beliefs of native indians and African slaves during the colonization of America.

Deemed a pagan festival and prohibited by several religions, empires and monarchies at various stages throughout history, the carnival persists as a symbol of joy and expression of humor. According to Allaweh, a non-profit Caribbean cultural organization, two of the renowned carnivals on the continent are the Rio de Janeiro Carnival (Brazil) and Louisiana’s Mardi Gras (U.S.).

                                 An Afro-Uruguayan  Candombe dancer leads a comparsa.

A Candombe dancer performs during Las Llamadas or parade of The Calls in Montevideo, Uruguay, on February 10, 2012. A feature of the Montevideo Carnival, Candombe is an Afro-Uruguayan rhythmic style music, which is based on the sound of three types of tambores or drums: its roots can be traced back to the 1700′s when African slaves were brought to Uruguay. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

             Afro-Uruguayan drummer

Afro-Uruguayans take their seats on the pavements of Isla de Flores for the second evening of Las Llamadas in Montevideo

                             Afro-Uruguayan women braiding hair

                                       Afro-Uruguayan woman


                                          Afro-Uruguayan woman dancing candombe

In the 18th and 19th Centuries thousands of West Africans were brought to Uruguay and forced to work as slaves for the Spanish colonizers. The rich culture, music and religion of these people and their descendants grew to greatly influence the region, but their important contribution has often been overlooked.

Every February two events take place in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, that have African influences at their heart – the Fiesta de Llemanja, a tribute to the sea goddess (or Orixá) from the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda which made its way across the Brazil-Uruguay border in the 1960s – and ‘Las Llamadas’ (‘The Calls’), a carnival of Candombe, a traditional Afro-Uruguayan rhythm.


A Mama Vieja (old mother) and Gramillero dance in the parade of Llamadas in Montevideo. One of the most important elements of Carnival in Uruguay is Candombe, an African drum rhythm played on tambor drums. It was revitalized in the Americas by black slave descendants as a way by which to reclaim their cultural heritage and battle for civil rights.

       Afro-Uruguayan activist Tania Ramírez at a march against racism and impunity in Montevideo in July, 2011.


Fuego Y Tambor

Fuego y Tambor (Fire and Drum) is a 13-minute documentary video that explores the role of Candombe drumming as an agent of revolution and social unification in the small South American country of Uruguay.
Language: Spanish/English


  1. Very interesting post. I loved the photos. I hope to find the video in its entirety.


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