On a sunny summer’s morning in late January, you awaken in Montevideo to the sound of pulsating drum rhythms. The sound emanates from the waterfront. It intensifies, and draws closer. Look out your window. Women dress in scanty, elaborate costumes, parade down the street as they dance to the rhythm of the drums. It’s carnival season in Montevideo. Forget New Orleans. Forget Rio. Forget Trinidad. The Carnival in Uruguay lasts 40 days, making it the longest in the world.
The Carnivals of Yesteryear
Despite their country’s location in South America, 93 percent of Uruguayan citizens hail from European descent. In 1750, Wealthy Montevideo families imported slaves from African nations. Deprived of their cultural identity, the slaves would occasionally gather together and practice “candombe,” a drum-based museum and dance form performed in different African cultures. When Uruguay abolished slavery, the Africans continued to practice candombe in the poorer neighborhoods of Montevideo, and by the 20th century the art form had evolved into Carnival, a municipally sanctioned part of the Uruguayan event calender.
The Lubolos put an interesting political perspective on the Carnival fiesta. These white men paint their faces black, and sing songs about missing the African homeland and the challenges of pleasing their masters. Unlike the American minstrel shows, the Lubolos are not a mockery of slavery. Instead, they offer their acts as a form of apology for the atrocities of their ancestors. This holds significance in a country whose president was a radical freedom fighter during the 1970s.
Political Parody and Satire
The Murgas—groups of 17 performers– perform political satire in the form of musical theater. Some events take place in the open streets, and others are held in local theaters. Pariodistas are solo performers, who work the crowds and perform parodies of politicians and well-known local figures. Neither the Murgas or the Pariodistas show any mercy. Fair game includes the president, La Christina and the entire country of Argentina.
Carnival for Expats
All of Uruguay celebrates Carnival, but most of the action centers around Montevideo. Be prepared for crowds, noise and non-stop partying. When you grow weary of the raucous, head east the beaches of Atlantida, Piriapolis, Punta del Este or La Rocha.