Candombe: Afro-Uruguayan Drums and the Roots of Tango

Tango music may have its origins in African slave drummers from Uruguay.

April 12, 2013— -- If you think it's difficult to drink water while walking, or text while walking, or do anything except walk while walking, try to wrap your brain around people who play giant drums while walking. You can't? Well then you can go ahead and cross "play candombe music" off your to-do list, because when it comes to candombe, playing while walking is the only way to do it.

Candombe music from Uruguay uses wooden drums that are shaped like barrels and called tamboriles. You wear them with one strap over your shoulder (called a talig or talí) and play them with a stick in your other hand. There are three kinds of tamboriles: chico (alto), repique (tenor), and piano (bass). The chico drum marks the tempo, piano drums the melody, and repique does the improv.

Percussionist and expert candombe player Daniel "Tatita" Marquez is a proud Uruguayan who has become a musical ambassador for his country (he was even featured in J.Lo's musical reality show "Q'Viva! The Chosen," if that counts.)

Indeed, Tatita knows his stuff. He studied classical percussion as a child, more percussion in college in Montevideo, and Brazilian music at the University of São Paulo. In the last seven years he's traveled back and forth to New York City to study music with Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, and Panamanians. "I study the music of the world, but more than anything, I'm focused on Latin music. One of my objectives is to inject candombe into the New York Latin jazz world," he told us when we interviewed him in Austin, Texas during SXSW.

"The music I play is Afro-Uruguayan because it began after the slaves arrived in Uruguay over 200 years ago, and has become part of our music and culture," says Tatita. Growing up in Barrio Palermo, an area heavily influenced by candombe, Tatita learned to play candombe drums pretty early on. "In the beginnings, candombe wasn't played on the streets. It wasn't public. It was played indoors."

Tatita explained that the origins of tango music reside in candombe's percussion rhythms, eventually evolving south to Argentina, where the sound fused with other immigrant music before becoming tango. Originally, it was played at underground gatherings in the slums of Buenos Aires, however, there's some controversy among tango lovers whether Carlos Gardel (the most important figure in the history of tango) was born in Uruguay or Argentina -- but that's another story.

The point is that, in Uruguay, candombe didn't evolve very far from its African roots, with drums as the main instrument. "In the beginning candombe used to involve more instruments. Over time though, those other instruments fell to the side because candombe is meant to be played on the street while walking," Tatita said.

Tatita and his drummer mates did us the honor of playing live in the streets of Austin for this video. Crowds on 6th street stopped to hear them play. But the icing on the cake was Tatita's use of our favorite word (FUSION) when describing his sound. Naturally, we were instantly charmed by his talent. Hope you enjoy the video as much as we did making it.