Music & Film

Can You Candombe? and How Argentina Lost Its Roots

Image from Tango Negro poster

I feel shame. Well, a little shame. Why? Because until 5 weeks ago, I had never heard of the dance and tradition of candombe, the Afro-Latino art form unique to Uruguay and the descendants of African slaves in the Southern region of South America. Thankfully I have wonderful opportunities like the African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF) to teach me more about those amazing creations that mainstream culture often ignores until they become popular enough to profit from them.

On my first venture out into the New York landscape to soak up my first taste of the culture scene, I made my way up to MIST Harlem, a bar meets coffeehouse meets ... event space meets ... restaurant meets ... movie theater. Let's just say there's a lot of meeting going on up there.

MIST (which also goes by Madiba Harlem) hosted a week-long event for the ADIFF in August and latecomers like myself, rushed to take in the last day of the series to see two documentaries dedicated to Afro-Latino culture, sharing the world of music and dance.


The first film was a 19-min short titled Candombe produced in 1994, but not released in the US until after the millennium. Candombe follows a brief narrative in the lives of 3 young men of Montevideo who work hard to keep the love of their much-underappreciated art form alive in a world that worships the Argentine tango and the commercialization of Carnival.

Images for Candombe

The short's lead Fernando Nuñez is the self-proclaimed heir to the art of drum making for the Candombe festival, and hopes to ignite a fire in his fellow Afro-Uruguayan brothers and sisters to preserve and celebrate this poignant practice. Why? Not only are its roots tied to the history of the millions of Africans who struggled to survive in a hostile new world, but its result was produced by a culture amalgamated from diverse African people who only had each other to lean on. Nuñez through his drum making and stories teaches others (young and old-enough-to-know-better) how their ancestors fought to perform the candombe when the local and federal government banned the dance under the guise that it was a call to incite dissidents to overthrow the government.

Such a legacy not only deserves to be preserved in stories, but in performance. Like the tango. Like the Carnival. Although the short is dated (and the film quality grainy), the content is just as relevant today as it would've been when it was originally filmed. The world is largely unaware of South American culture that isn't steeped in the ancient roots of Indigenous people or European invaders and settlers. Candombe is a small step forward in hopes of changing that reality.

Millions -- if not billions -- have heard of the tango and espouse its virtues. Here, Nuñez only hopes to do the same for the candombe. Let's hope Nuñez continues in spreading his message and love of Afro-Uruguayan traditions throughout the world. Then, maybe the candombe will join the tango in the annals of history as one of the many beautiful contributions from Afro-Latino culture we celebrate today.

Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango

Tango Negro poster

The second film of ADIFF's final showcase was the headliner that's been drawing attention across film festivals ever since its release in 2013. A French production directed by an Angolan filmmaker with French and Spanish-speaking participants is a magnificent example of the diversity of the African diaspora and the people who are clearly drawn, engulfed and supportive of it, regardless of their nationality or race. The film takes an honest look at the history of the tango guided by the hand of composer, pianist and Latin music icon, Juan Carlos Caceres.

It turns out that Caceres has been putting his name and reputation in harms' way for almost half a century trying to Argentinean citizens to appropriately credit the African roots of the tango. He's been championing the African origins of the music and dance since 1968, often to deaf ears. In the film, we see him speak and meet with people of all generations and backgrounds when talking about the truth of tango's roots. By his -- and many others estimation -- the tango is born from the 3 distinct rhythms all culminating from the minds and the giant cultural mixing bowl created by Argentina's, Brazil's and Uruguay's population of African descent located throughout the Rio de la Plata. According to Caceres, the evidence is obvious to any musician who's ever studied the roots of the dance and its music.

Yet Caceres is often met with resistance or an uncomfortable silence whenever he broaches the subject in the company of white Europeans or Brazilians and Argentineans of European descent. The reason for this is somewhat explained through a brief history lesson in how Argentina "became white" over the last century when the tango was gaining popularity around the world. In short, the black population were always sent to the front lines during wartime campaigns, all but obliterating the populace save for small children, women and men too elderly to serve. It's a nation that has so effectively -- either through war or systematic disenfranchisement -- silenced its black citizens that today, many Argentineans believe there is no such thing as a black Argentinean at all.

This harsh perspective plays out in comical and cruel ways when the documentary speaks to native-born Argentineans of African descent. Some have learned to laugh off the absurdity that they don't exist. While others are actively working to make sure the next generation doesn't succeed in erasing their existence even more, perhaps by denying they ever existed at all. This erasure from the cultural consciousness of Argentina, according to Caceres, is a large reason why the tango's African roots have been conveniently rewritten.

The tango is a community affair

One of the things I loved most about this documentary is how it really pulls no punches, but at the same time, it doesn't feel as if it experiences the same tension the subject matter would encounter if this film were made in the US. Speaking to advocates, scholars, and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, the tango's history begins to take shape as each piece of the puzzle is revealed to the audience. Along the way, we see very little bitterness from the interviewees, but there is a distinct air of indignation and frustration.

We also hear from politicians, drum makers, and average Joe's, all too aware of the history of the Argentinean claim to fame. The names on the screen fly past too quickly as you try to not miss any details of their interpretation and contribution to preserving Uruguay's and Argentina's contribution to their nation's history and art forms. But the film is expansive within its time frame, and the participants are fearless in their criticism and love of their home country.

The film ends on the best kind of uplifting note: a musical jam session and singalong. The intimate celebration -- similar to that stalwart dining tradition popular in most cultures throughout the African diaspora: the barbecue -- begins with the beautiful voice of a woman by the name of Graciela Rodriguez. Ms. Rodriquez is an older, dark-skinned woman with a host of family and friends by her side when she launches into a traditional melody that would astound the ears of anyone who thinks we aren't all connected. Her voice brought to mind a wonderful mix of Etta James and Celia Cruz, and punctuated the determination the filmmaker has in making sure voices like hers don't fade away from our minds or our history books.

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