Candombe Review

AKA: Candombe: Afro-Kultur I Uruguay, Candombe: Afro-Culture in Uruguay
Genre: Music Documentary
Year Released: 1994
Distributor: ArtMattan/Facets Video
Origin: Sweden/Uruguay
Running Time: 17 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Tango Negro, Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories, Welli Candombe, Candombe in Uruguay, Ritual Rhythms
-This was a bonus feature in the Goodbye Momo DVD, but it is unrelated to the film.
Fun Facts:
-This is the second film by director Rafael Deugenio. He has also directed Blind Ras, Storsad, and Sorgen among other short films and documentaries.

-Drummer and drum-maker Fernando Nunez is featured in Candombe. He would eventually be in the Tango Negro film years later. He’s based in Montevideo and has collaborated with musicians such as Opa, Ketama, and Jorge Drexler. Guess which famous rockstar got to visit him on his 60th birthday in 2016? Mick Jagger. That’s no joke. The Rolling Stones’ frontman was legitimately curious about candombe music and came to celebrate with a master of that musical genre.

-Candombe music is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. That means it’s a protected art form for a country or countries for the preservation of the culture of a country or countries. Some other examples of things with that same classification are couscous (yes, as in the food), Cuban rumba, yoga for India, and Turkish coffee to name a few.

Candombe music has been a fun discovery ever since I watched Tango Negro. That is easily one of my favorite music documentaries as of recently and I actively listened to some candombe music from the likes of Jhonny Neves and Kimba to name a few (hilariously enough, the latter’s logo is a white lion). The intricate drumming and polyrhythms have been invigorating and I’ve even seen it fused with other genres. As someone of Congolese descent through my mom’s side, I found it extremely fascinating that the name had origins in the Kikongo language much like how tango or fandango come from that tongue as well as Lingala. Looks like I’m going back to Uruguay (metaphorically speaking of course) to check out a short documentary specifically about this music coming straight from that South American nation.

Candombe talks about this Uruguayan music right there in the capital of Montevideo. It’s a genre that relies on a trio of drums with polyrhythms. They involve different sizes and functions. There’s the chico drum which has a higher pitch and timbre and serves as the basis for the beat. A medium size drum known as a repique is used for freestyling on the rhythm. The biggest one is the piano drum. No, you can’t play piano on it or with it. That drum acts as the bass anchor for a performance. Typically, candombe music is played not just in concerts or jam sessions, but during the Carnival season. The origin of that music comes from enslaved Africans who came to Uruguay over two centuries ago and while their names and languages were stripped from their beings, they could still remember the drums from their homelands. This knowledge has been passed down for several generations in the Afro-Uruguayan community even despite malignant racism and even their music being banned during that country’s dictatorship period. One candombe legend Fernando Nunez meets up with some locals to play music with them after making the finishing touches on a drum made for a Swedish buyer. Nunez enjoys the music, but he refuses to participate in Carnival which is going on at the time due to his concerns that music is being cheapened in the country.

Having just a tiny background in that genre, I will say this was an interesting extension of sorts after watching Tango Negro. Some of the information involved things I already knew from that documentary, but that’s not a bad thing as it still has educational value to those completely new to that form of music. The candombe jam sessions were fun to listen to and I liked how most of the soundtrack involved that kind of drumming with half of it coming live from the streets in this documentary. There was a good intro connecting the origins of the Transatlantic slave trade with the montage of paintings happening there. The production was on the gritty side, but it served a point with the realistic camera work and lighting. While I wouldn’t call this a docudrama of sorts, there was some real-life drama in it when it comes to Fernando Nunez. This did have a “day in the life” kind of feel to it with people just living life during Carnival season, but some of that confrontation came in when Nunez’s pals in the neighborhood asked if he wanted to go to Carnival. It wasn’t some confrontation that lead to a fight or scandalous secrets he hid from everyone. This was some real-life frustration with him calling out the commercialization of candombe music how it’s used for tourist attractions and how it diminishes the culture (mainly the African origins of that music). I won’t go into much detail about his hard-hitting rant, but I was very glad that Nunez had the audacity to call out the misusing of that music not because of being burnt out, but by being righteously passionate about it. This isn’t the same thing as let’s say a punk or indie rock band selling out for major labels as well as top 40 hits. He goes into the nitty-gritty with it being culturally appropriated, not recognizing the painful history of slavery, and even during the dictatorship where it was a crime to even OWN a drum as well as Black people being forced out of their homes and into the slums. He made some great points and using music as a form of cultural appropriation was an apt point even though this isn’t the first documentary that used it in that context (Gurumbe and especially The Lion’s Share on so many levels). The topics of appropriation and gentrification were so on point. That was natural storytelling and it really put things into perspective in regards to that type of music.

Candombe does botch a few notes. This was made in the early 90s (1993 to be exact as mentioned in the opening) which clearly shows with the fashion shown there. Even the cameras did look dated and the credits certainly looked early 90s with the presentation. The studio tracks used for the background music certainly had older production like the synths and drum machines mixed with the candombe drums. I noticed a few subtitle errors and one big misspelling I noticed was the piano drum being used for “base” purposes instead of “bass”. It had a short runtime and a lot of insightful information, but I think they could’ve explained the musical aspects a bit more. They just blew by with the drums during the first jam session and they could’ve explained more of the significance or at the very least the intricacies of the music. Besides Nunez, I have no idea who anyone else was in the movie. I get they’re locals who are there for the music but giving them some recognition would be a nice touch. The slice-of-life approach to the presentation was fine, but I think they could’ve gone in a more educational route because it unintentionally looked like it would be some kind of docudrama which felt like a weird thing even with the naturalist filmmaking. While Nunez’s speech was insightful and needed to be said, I thought there should’ve been more information. I really don’t want to discount this short documentary because there are certainly worthy things about it, but I felt that I learned more about candombe music from Tango Negro and that wasn’t even the main genre focused on in that doc. There should’ve been more that could’ve been done.

This little documentary was a good watch although it didn’t blow me away like other musical documentaries dealing with the uncredited African history in various forms of music or certain songs. The performances were great and Nunez’s reason for not taking part of the Carnival was powerful in itself. There are dated production and some information was lacking at points. Candombe could be a good supplementary watch to Tango Negro since there were some new points I didn’t even know. Maybe this could’ve been packaged with that doc instead of Goodbye Momo even though the Uruguayan connection does make sense. Candombe is worth taking a look at, but some things could’ve been improved.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like candombe music.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want more educational documentaries.
-Subtract 2-4 points if you’re triggered by talks involving racism, cultural appropriation and/or gentrification.

-Great candombe performances
-Fernando Nunez’s anti-Carnival speech was straight fire
-Points out the African origins in an accessible way

-Subtitle errors at times
-Could have used more information
-Dated production

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Advisory: Candombe doesn’t have many offensive things, but there is some mature content. Fernando Nunez does use the N-word to prove a point when he talks about the anti-Black racism in Uruguay’s history. Slavery, cultural appropriation, and gentrification are mentioned. The carnival dancers do wear skimpy outfits in brief scenes.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Candombe is property of ArtMattan and Facets Video. The poster is from Amazon and is property of ArtMattan and Facets Video.

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