Tuesday, February 21, 2012

las llamadas: a little bitty carnaval

When Angela and I left Karumbe we had the happy coincidence of landing in Montevideo for the first day of the Llamadas. Uruguay prides itself on holding the second largest Carnaval celebration behind Brazil, and the Llamadas are part of that month long celebration. In its most concise form it's a parade, dominated by condombes (a form of drums). In practice it's a lot more elaborate than that. The parades last for 2 nights in order to allow all the respective barrios and groups to have their chance to show off. It runs down 11 city blocks in an old, historically poor part of the city. The streets are lined with benches, bleachers and chairs. All the business and houses have people spilling from windows and sitting on roof ledges to get a glimpse of the people passing by. The festivities start around 9 at night, when the sun has set and can last well into the wee hours of the morning...no one seems to notice as I think the streets got more crowded as time moved on.

Angela and I prepared ourselves for the event by going to the Carnaval museum the morning of the first llamadas. I had a very, very loose understanding of what all this llamadas business was all about and a little bit of educating seemed in order. This is where I learned about the organization of each group and the role of the players. It summed up a brief history of Carnaval...slaves, african/european/latin blending of cultures and sounds, superstitions and religious reasoning, and the progression of the event over the years. I learned to expect a layout of sorts: a flag proclaiming the name of the group, followed by a school of flags and a moon and star, this was followed by the characters of old men and women with white hair and canes dancing an animated version of the samba, then a whole crew of barely dressed women with sparkles and feathers and high heels flicking exposed butts in a more rigorous samaba, and then a team of machine-like men hammering out contagious beats on condombes. I poked Angela with my elbow...we're going to see this tonight! Can you believe we get to see Carnaval?!

We spent the rest of the day really just killing time around Montevideo. It is a strange city with that juxtaposition of old and newish. I can't say new, because it doesn't really seem like things have been updated since the the 1980s, but there is definitely old. Beautiful old building like what happens across the water in Buenos Aires. Maybe I am getting hard to impress as time rolls by on this trip, but really there wasn't anything too memorable about the city  other than the fact that people were fishing and kids were swimming in Rio Plata. I should have taken a picture of this, it may have been one of the foulest things I have ever seen. Pretty sure under no circumstance would people in the US ever be allowed to enter into water as polluted at this without hazard suits. But there they were, swimming around like it was totally the logical thing to do. I'll admit it, it was effing hot out and if I hadn't seen the grossness of smelled the grossness it would have maybe seemed like a feasible thing to consider. Who knows, maybe growing up in the USA has made me soft...I mean, it's not like anyone there had a third eye or anything, and clearly they have been eating from this river and swimming in it longer than I have been around. Regardless, I made a mental note to avoid seafood.

It wasn't hard to pass the time. Montevideo isn't remarkable, but it's still pretty. There are lots of plazas shaded with big leafy trees, stone streets shaded with the same big leafy trees, and pedestrian only streets set up with street vendors selling the usual artesenia...jewelry, art, books, handicrafts, mate gourds, and pirated music. Angela had some gift shopping she wanted to do and since I am not allowed to buy things just for the sake of buying things I enjoyed looking at all the little stands and shops with her pretending that I might break down and buy something. Sorry guys, no souvenirs for you...

We had arranged with the hostel to get seats for the parade the night before. It was explained to me that we would also get to see one of the groups preparing to go out, getting the condombes ready and all the make-up and feathers in place. After that we would then be shown our seats where we were promised primo viewing of all the groups going by. I should have known better, it sounded too good to be true, but my excitement got the best of me. But as arranged we hurried back to regroup before going pretty much right back where we came from. The most important development in the afternoon was that Angela did finally get to try some mate. It's probably a good thing we didn't let her try it earlier...I could see her addictive personality kicking in and she took to the mate like a true Uruguayan. It would only be a matter of time before she would be toting a thermos of hot water under one arm with the mate gourd occupying her free hand. She had the look about her and seemed quite comfortable walking down the street with it, waiting at the bus stop with it, riding the bus with it...watching the llamadas with it. She even learned how to ask for more hot water. Part of me thinks she may have some Urugauyan or Argentine blood...and that blood flows with mate.

So either there was a misunderstanding or we got had, but there was no watching a group prepare to go out. This was a major bummer to me. We ended up sitting around in a community center thing run by some woman who told us a bit about the neighborhoood...but never saw no stinking drums or feathers. We did however get pretty good seats. Seats in general are hard to come bye, so we were lucky to get anything at such late notice. It wasn't front row, but I'm not complaining, and when I stood up on my chair there was nothing blocking my view. 

Soon enough the sun set and the llamadas began. Here is a quick sample of what we saw. I posted a few other videos on my flickr...you can find them under sets: videos!

It was like feeling the music move through you as the drums got closer. You couldn't help but shimmy your shoulders and wiggle your hips a little bit either. The locals had no reservations about it all. They would tag along behind the groups as they passed sambaing along. Old and young, fit and flabby, light and dark...it didn't matter, this is a party and everyone is expected to have some fun. There was a definate feeling of playfulness in the air and the colors and sounds of the groups as they passed by were nearly hypnotic. I think that was my favorite part. Sure they costumes were something different, and the orchestration of the drumline was great, and the giant flags that touched your hair as they flew overhead were fun, but the beats of the drums moved through you, it tickled your organs and jumpstarted your heart...and your eyes were bombarded with color. It can only make me imagine what must happen just across the border in Brazil. I don't know it I could handle that. 

We didn't stay for the whole parade. We had to get up early to keep on moving towards Iguazu. Tonight the impressive vista of streets filled with people...tomorrow the impressive vista of a world carved by water. As we walked away from the main street you could still hear the party, the cheers, the thump of drumsticks. Each pace taking us farther away and the grip of the music got weaker with each block. Eventually the streets were quiet...apartment windows were dark, shops were closed. Just a couple blocks away carnaval is jumping like its 2012 but where we were seemed like worlds away. Hey Angela....remember that one time we went to carnaval?

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