Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0138
September 18, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. This week on Common Ground, Uruguay’s national music and the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

PORTER: In the United States in the 1960s the young civil rights movement gave rise to a vibrant Black arts movement. Today in the South American nation of Uruguay a Black empowerment movement is emerging that includes a strong assertion of cultural identity. That can be seen in the rediscovery of the African roots of Uruguay’s national music, candombe. Common Ground’s Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo.

[a man singing an upbeat song in Spanish while playing a guitar]

EHRLICH: Uruguayans love candombe music with the same passion that Brazilians embrace samba. And like samba, candombe fuses African rhythms with European melodies and instrumentation. But these days some Uruguayans are rediscovering the African roots of candombe.

[upbeat Uruguayan song]

EHRLICH: Here at the Mundo-Afro Cultural Center, four men pound out sophisticated rhythms on tambor drums while a woman’s chorus sings traditional candombe. The tambores, which look a little like potbellied conga drums, are played with an open hand and a drumstick.

[sound of drumming and singing]

EHRLICH: The renewed interest in black culture is part of an incipient movement against racial discrimination here. Most white Uruguayans think racism doesn’t exist in their country. But a disproportionate number of blacks live in poverty, receiving 20 percent lower wages than whites for similar work. No blacks reach the upper levels of business or government. Candombe musician Eduardo Da Luz, says Uruguay is undergoing a new cultural and political awakening, which includes the election this year of the first black member to the House of Deputies, the lower house of the national legislature.

EDUARDO DA LUZ: [via a translator] We observe with a lot of pride how a black man or woman can now succeed in politics, and not just in music. It’s something very important, because it never happened before. In the US there’s racism; here the racism is hidden but it exists. In the military black officers can rise only to certain levels. They can’t become a general. It’s not permitted. And to have a black man as a senator or a deputy is very rare. We observe with a lot of pride that a black brother was elected and can help lead the country.

[sound of drumming]

EHRLICH: Candombe originated during colonial times when African slaves used drums as part of their secret religious practices. Over the years the religious aspects faded away. But a lively music and dance remained. For much of this century black Uruguayans only played candombe during Carnival and at black family events. Da Luz says the country’s white upper crust shunned the music as uncivilized.

DA LUZ: [via a translator] A lot of Uruguayans saw candombe as a music of poor people, of barefoot people and children begging in the streets. Candombe was a music of the streets, not part of our society. Well, it took a long time for candombe to win acceptance here.

EHRLICH: In the 1940s candombe started to become more acceptable as it was fused with tango and other popular musical styles of the era.

[a song combining tango and candombe]

EHRLICH: In the succeeding years musicians combined candombe rhythms with mambo and even rock and roll. But candombe really soared to national prominence when musicians fused candombe with the singing and guitar style known as “canto popular,” or popular song.

[an example of candombe fused with canto popular]

EHRLICH: In 1973 the military seized power in Uruguay and candombe became associated with resistance to the brutal dictatorship. The military had banned public demonstrations, so inventive Uruguayans transformed a Carnival day traditionally devoted to candombe music and dance into a day of protest. Thousands of people could gather on De De Las Llamadas, the Day of the Drum Calls, and express opposition to the military without getting arrested, says Beatriz Ramirez, Montevideo’s first black city councilperson.

BEATRIZ RAMIREZ: [via a translator] During the years of dictatorship here it became a day of resistance for all of Uruguayan society, the Llamadas, who are a voice for the simple citizens of Uruguay to rebel against the diabolic dictatorship that ended the democracy that Uruguay had for many years. It became a day of rebellion, of resistance, and helped us change to a democratic government, which we have today.

[an example of candombe fused with canto popular]

EHRLICH: By the time the military regime fell in 1984 candombe had fully emerged as Uruguay’s national music. While appreciating the new popularity of candombe, many black Uruguayans felt the new fusion had lost its African roots. Drummer and composer Ruben Rada is one of the country’s most famous musicians.

RUBEN RADA: [via a translator] The candombe of whites who love candombe is a completely different sound. The whites use a simplified guitar strumming style.

[Rada hums/chants the simplified style]

EHRLICH: Rada says that style is very square compared with the black rhythm that sounds like this

[Rada hums/chants the black style]

RADA: The rhythms is very good. It’s like Stevie Wonder and Pat Boone, you know.

EHRLICH: Rada says black musicians also face discrimination. They had a harder time earning a living from their art, making recordings, and traveling abroad on government-sponsored trips.

RADA: [via a translator] Whenever artists were sent abroad to represent Uruguay they never sent black people. Not many people in the world, including Latin Americans, know Uruguay has black people. The cultural leaders of the government never supported black culture. They always sent car racers, tennis players, classical musicians, tango musicians, folk-loric musicians, but no black musicians.

EHRLICH: That’s beginning to change now that Uruguayans are trying to learn more about the African roots of candombe. Some are joining classes to learn about the tambores from master drummers such as Benjamin Arrascaeta. He explains how the sound of the tambores differ from other drums.

[sound of drumming]

BENJAMIN ARRASCAETA: [via a translator] That’s the sound of the conga.

[sound of a more metallic drumming]

ARRASCAETA: [via a translator] This is the repique. The different sound comes from the tuning and from the drum head. The drumskin is rougher on the conga and finer on the tambor.

[sound of more drumming]

ARRASCAETA: [via a translator] This is the sound of the bombo. It’s a candombe drum that was introduced into the music only in the 1950s. It functions as base. Its sound is distinct from the other tambor.

[sound of more drumming]

[sound of a more metallic drumming]

ARRASCAETA: [via a translator] We not only play the drumheads, we also beat rhythm on the side of the drums called, “the wood.” The wood is one of the elements that didn’t exist when candombe began, but it’s very popular today.

[sound of tapping out or beating a rhythm on the wood]

[sound of a female singer]

EHRLICH: There are other signs of a new cultural and political ferment in Uruguay. During the 2000 Carnival audiences saw a production of Opera Negra, a full-scale folk opera. It tells the story of a black tambor player falling in love with a white woman. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story in which the white parents object to the relationship.

[sound of a female singer]

EHRLICH: Washington Salvo helped write lyrics for Opera Negra. While at night he works with candombe musicians, during the day he’s the government minister in charge of national elections. He says Opera Negra exposes the fact that whites think racism doesn’t exist here.

WASHINGTON SALVO: [via a translator] Ask people if they would accept a black man marrying their white daughter. You would see the amount of discrimination. The idea of marrying a black person and then having children: very few whites would accept this.

[sound of rapid-fire drumming and singing]

SALVO: [via a translator] The opera isn’t a protest against prejudice. There are no signs, no demonstrations. But yes, there’s a criticism against existing prejudice that unfortunately exists in our society against black people. Blacks don’t have access to the upper levels in society and our culture. They have difficult lives and face barriers that whites don’t face.

EHRLICH: Opera Negra was recently performed again in Montevideo before a sold out audience at a major theater.

[sound of rapid-fire drumming and singing]

EHRLICH: Every Sunday in Montevideo’s neighborhoods black and white young people gather around open fires to tune the skins on their tambor drums. Sparks fly as they throw balled-up newspapers onto the fire, lending an eerie light to the frigid night air. Then, 50 or 60 people strap on their drums and march down the street to a pulsating beat.

[sound of rapid-fire drumming]

EHRLICH: Musician Eduardo Da Luz says these “domingueras,” or “Sunday jams,” are part of the resurgence in traditional or “pure” candombe.

DA LUZ: [via a translator] The domingueras are made up mostly of young people interested in learning and playing pure candombe. It’s not candombe with drum sets, like in rock bands. They want to experience the pure candombe from our roots. Young kids, teenagers, are building their first weapons of candombe. It’s a good path for this new blood to experience. Of course, it’s music of the people.

[sound of rapid-fire drumming]

EHRLICH: Da Luz says that both blacks and whites are interested in the African roots of candombe.

DA LUZ: [via a translator] Candombe is part of the identity of the Uruguayan people-whites, blacks, and mixed race. There are a lot of whites who play the tambor very well, as do many blacks. It’s not just a rhythm for black people. It’s a rhythm that identifies our Uruguayan republic. Blacks and whites have the right to play it.

[sound of upbeat singing and drumming]

EHRLICH: That spirit of multinational unity pervades the Mundo-Afro Cultural Center here in the heart of Montevideo. Mundo-Afro has become a nexus for both political and cultural activists of all races who want to see black political empowerment. Election Minister Washington Salvo.

SALVO: [via a translator] It’s clear that Mundo-Afro for many years has revalidated black values, what we call “negritude,” in the sense of black music, poetry, clothing-all the traditions of Uruguay. Mundo-Afro is a great popularizer of these values. These go hand in hand with efforts to stop prejudice. This includes greater black representation in government.

[more upbeat music]

EHRLICH: City council member Beatriz Ramirez, who is also a cofounder of Mundo-Afro, says artists and political activists share common goals.

: [via a translator] We’re arriving at the same starting point to discover exactly who we are. Artists and political activists together are struggling for social, economic, and political rights.

[more upbeat music]

EHRLICH: Traditional candombe and black political empowerment involve a small but growing number of Uruguayans. Activists at the Mundo-Afro hope to widen both movements in the years to come. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Montevideo, Uruguay.

[more upbeat singing and drumming]

MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Coming up, the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

RAY HOLMAN: The roughest of the rough were playing pans, so they excluded women. Women weren’t that rough, you know. And so gradually they came in. There was an all-girls steel band in the 1950s called Girl Pan Steel Band. But at first it was difficult, I think, for a woman to get involved in that music. It was macho.

[sound of a calypso band]

EHRLICH: Calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago are more than entertainers. They are social critics with a grassroots following. Singer and composer David Rudder says during colonial times calypsonians called for multiethnic unity against British colonialism.

DAVID RUDDER: It started back at the turn of the century and it, calypso, became the voice of the people. It’s like, in a sense the people’s newspaper. It’s an editorial in song. By that time Trinidad was controlled by British colonials, so one phone call could stop an article from going into the newspaper. But nothing could stop the calypsonians mouth.

EHRLICH: Calypsonians have maintained that tradition of populist political and social commentary down to the present day. After the 1995 UNM election victory, when ethnic tensions ran high, Rudder wrote the song Savagery, which condemned both major political parties for their racial politics.

RUDDER: [singing his song Savagery]: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, what do we have for a curtain call. Holsters, holsters, guns, cannons. We’re getting the winners, shooting up the ends…”

RUDDER: Trinidad is very much like America. It’s an immigrant society. It’s the island version of America in a funny way, you know-all the different groups. Everyone is sort of like, watching each other, you know. But yet we have a level of tolerance and togetherness that is unsurpassed anywhere.

EHRLICH: To encourage tolerance Rudder wrote his popular song, The Ganges And The Nile. He chose those two great rivers of India and Africa to symbolize a coming together of the two communities in Trinidad and Tobago.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “Once upon a time there was a magic island, full of magic people. Let me tell you a story, about their pain and their glory, oh yeah…”

RUDDER: In spite of the politics these two mighty rivers that have brought us here, the Ganges and the Nile, they flow together.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “Bringing fear and faith, but also a brand new style. And of all these rivers that shed this land, two mighty ones move like a sculptor’s hand…”

EHRLICH: Rudder and many other residents of Trinidad and Tobago say that despite the politicians’ efforts to fan ethnic differences, people at the grass roots will continue efforts towards unity. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “One lovely nation, one daughter of groove, the Ganges has met the Nile…”

MCHUGH: The musical power of discarded oil drums, next on Common Ground.

PAT BISHOP: To ask about women in pan is to ask about women in Trinidad. The pan world is only a microcosm of the larger society.

PORTER: Steel pans, the musical instrument made from discarded oil drums, originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Today, steel pans are the national instrument of that Caribbean island nation. MCHUGH: But at one time steel pans were considered low class and primitive. As Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from the capital city of Port-of-Spain, the history of the steel pan reflects Trinidad’s ongoing class, race, and gender wars.

[sounds of steel pan music and a bustling market]

EHRLICH: Here in the pan yard, practice area, 100 members of the steel band Allstars beat their pans and dance rhythmically in place. Women in short skirts and high heels wave the band’s flag. The audience responds with wild dance steps as the Allstars play a calypso version of the hymn Precious Lord.

[a calypso band plays an instrumental version of Precious Lord]

EHRLICH: Steel pan composer Ray Holman says the people of Trinidad look at steel pan music the way Brazilians see samba or residents of New Orleans view jazz.

RAY HOLMAN: Feelings run very high. Emotions run very high. People get worked up over it, you know. It’s really something to experience.

EHRLICH: Steel pans were invented in the 1930s by poor black Trinidadians living under the yoke of British colonialism. Today the pans are used in everything from symphonic orchestras to jazz combos. They’ve come to symbolize the pride and identity of Trinidad and Tobago, but also its history of social conflict.

[a tamboo-bamboo band plays]

EHRLICH: Back in the 1930s carnival and other street parades in Trinidad featured tamboo-bamboo bands, which consisted of choral singing accompanied by hitting various lengths of bamboo poles on the ground.

[a tamboo-bamboo band plays]

EHRLICH: Seventy-nine-year-old Oscar Pile is a pan player and historian who remembers those bands.

OSCAR PILE: A group of young men, they also had a tamboo-bamboo band. By coincidence one of the bamboos split and the guy was so eager to get something to beat that he discarded the broken bamboo and run into a yard. And the first thing that he put his hand on was an old bin pan. And he take up this bin pan and he started beating this steel bin pan. Well, to the amazement of the others who were beating the bamboo, the bin pan had a more unique sound than the dull sound he was getting from the bamboo. They all discarded their bamboo and they all went and looked for some kind of old pan somewhere around the dust bins, and what have you.

EHRLICH: Banging rhythmically on dust bins, what we call garbage cans, became wildly popular, but not with British colonial authorities who then ruled the West Indies.

OSCAR PILE: It didn’t go down well with society. So these guys were poor old guys, not working anywhere, so you know, stealing pans and stealing the dust bins and so on, that were put on the side of the streets and things. So the cops come in and start to arrest people for stealing these bins and so on.

EHRLICH: By the early 1940s construction and petroleum companies were using a lot of 50-gallon drums which they discarded on the junk piles. Musicians took the oil cans, cut them, and turned them into instruments. At first the oil drums and lids were not tuned-they were played strictly for rhythm, drawing inspiration from shango, the African religious drumming and choral singing tradition.

[a group of singers and drummers perform shango music]

EHRLICH: By the mid-1940s musicians learned to tune the instruments and began to play simple melodies. Steel pan arranger Pat Bishop says nevertheless the British outlawed the playing of steel pans and other instruments, a reflection of their class and racial bias.

PAT BISHOP: The beating of drums was an offense during the days of slavery because the authorities felt that there could be the transmission of secret messages and encouragements to insurrection and so on.

[a group of singers and drummers perform shango music]

BISHOP: Those laws passed onto the statute books after freedom. By last reading of the summary offenses that were announced before independence, you still couldn’t play, not just play a drum, but play a piano or a banjo, really, after nine o’clock in the night.

EHRLICH: Oscar Pile says British authorities considered black working class steel pan men to be low-lifes and criminals.

PILE: When we committed an annual offense and we go to the courts, in front of the magistrate, he want you, “You is a pan man. You playing pans!” So your penalty was, he send you to prison. You understand, you go on the street and play and he send you to prison.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Official harassment didn’t stop the pan men. They continued to improve the tuning of their instruments and produce ever more sophisticated music. By the early 1950s the pans won a following among wealthy white Trinidadians, according to Neville Jewels, a founding member of the steel band Allstars.

NEVILLE JEWELS: You got a few kids from the upper class who get to like the pan. And we used to go and pan for them. In my case I used to go and tune the pan unknowing to the white kids’ parents. And it went on like that until they decided to have their own band.

EHRLICH: Then in 1951 black Trinidadians took a steel band to London for a festival devoted to the cultures of the British colonies. Oscar Pile says at first the straight-laced Brits were skeptical of music played on discarded oil drums.

PILE: The British people thought, “Who are they? What are these people coming here for?” when they saw the dust bins and oil drums. Not knowing anything, what they heard out of these dust bins and drums. It was marvelous. They started to hear God Save The King. And various other classic music, playing on these pans. They start to hear Tennessee Waltz and they was amazed.

[a band plays Tennessee Waltz in steel pan style]

EHRLICH: Throughout the 1950s and 60s steel band music won greater respectability at home and abroad, but that didn’t make the steel bands exactly respectable-particularly for women.

PILE: If the parents had a daughter and she know that daughter has any relationship with a guy that’s playing the pan, “We don’t want you to have anything to do with a steel band man.” They deem you as a vagabond, robbers.

EHRLICH: A vagabond and a robber?

PILE: That’s right.

EHRLICH: And those were some of the nicer words society used when describing steel pan men. Many families didn’t want their daughters playing steel pans. And of course, the tough guys in the band weren’t real anxious to have women participate except as flag wavers in sexy costumes who paraded down the street with the band during carnival. Pan arranger Ray Holman explains.

RAY HOLMAN: The roughest of the rough were playing pans, so they excluded women. Women weren’t that rough, you know. And so gradually they came in. There was an all-girls steel band in the 1950s called Girl Pan Steel Band. But at first it was difficult, I think, for a woman to get involved in that music. It was macho.

PAT BISHOP: To ask about women in pan is to ask about women in Trinidad. The pan world is only a microcosm of the larger society.

EHRLICH: Steel pan arranger Pat Bishop says women in Trinidad were confined to certain kinds of jobs in the 1950s, and pan playing wasn’t one of them. By the late 1960s women around the world were joining the movement for women’s liberation. Bishop says the movement never gained organized strength in Trinidad and Tobago, but women began asserting themselves individually. By the late 1960s women started being accepted in the steel bands.

BISHOP: Women became tired of simply being the cooks and the nursemaids to these men and some of them just wanted to play. And they did.

EHRLICH: Today women make up about one-third of many steel bands. Women have become pan arrangers and in some cases, lead the bands as well.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Trinidadians learned to tune the pans to mimic the sounds of European classical orchestras. These days 100 steel pan players can sound like a full symphony, as heard in the group Siffle Bunch’s version of the popular calypso tune, The Stranger.

[Shiffle Bunch band The Stranger]

EHRLICH: Every year the steel pan groups compete in Panorama, a contest to select the best band in the land. Some 30,000 people attend the finals, judged by a panel of music experts. But at least some of the musicians are unhappy with recent trends. Composer and arranger Ray Holman says too many bands rely on formulas and gimmicks aimed at winning points from the judges.

HOLMAN: The judges have a preconceived idea of what this thing should sound like. So if you arrange in that vein, then your chances of doing well are better. But if you should depart from it and do something different, it’s a little more difficult for you. You know, it’s not very readily accepted. But you have these exaggerated crescendos who always seem to please judges.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Holman and others say steel band music still faces class conflict. Should the music serve the judges and other arbiters of musical taste, or should it serve the musicians? It’s similar to the conflict faced by artists everywhere. Should they pursue their vision or seek commercial success? But Pat Bishop doesn’t see it that way. She says the judges are just trying to improve a style that originated as rather unsophisticated marching music. She says the judges look at the panorama of performance as concert music and expect that level of musicianship.

BISHOP: When a band goes up and plays loudly for 10 minutes, their ears are offended. They ask for dynamics. When a band goes and plays a verse and chorus over and over and over again, they ask for reharmonization and melodic development. It has to serve its original client base of the streets, and it has at the same time to please its public by winning the competition on the stage. And that is the reason for the apparent awkwardness.

EHRLICH: Michael Boothman, a Trinidadian jazz guitarist, disagrees. He says Panorama has been particularly slow in accepting innovative artistic vision. He says for a long time pan players couldn’t even compose original music for Panorama.

MICHAEL BOOTHMAN: It took a while for the steel band movement to accept a composition from a fellow pan player. So guys like Ray Harmon, who was on of the pioneering arrangers, who composed music for pan to be played on Panorama, had to do it for about three or four years before he was able to make an impact.

BISHOP: The popular reaction to that is, on the whole, not popular.

EHRLICH: Pat Bishop says it’s not just the judges who reject Ray Holman’s innovations.

BISHOP: Ray Holman is, has, his popularity has to do with the fact that he innovated, that he started diversing the bands from his music, from the music of the streets. But so far he hasn’t, in this mode, won a Panorama. And that must tell you something about the extent to which innovation can carry the popular opinion.

EHRLICH: On the other hand, Panorama audiences have embraced the innovative styles of Len, “Boogsie” Sharp, who arranges for the steel band Phase II. In his version of the calypso song, Freedom, Sharp manages to introduce popular elements without resorting to musical clichés.

[Len Sharp’s band plays its version of Freedom]

EHRLICH: But Sharp’s arrangements are the exception. Some Trinidadian musicians would like Panorama fans and judges to accept a wider array of styles. Steel pan players in the US and Europe don’t mimic European classical orchestras, instead using elements of jazz, Latin, and African music. Pan player Aldon Moore says younger musicians would like to incorporate such innovations into Panorama.

ALDON MOORE: Jazz is a big influence on the, in Trinidad on pan right now. In later years you’re gonna hear much more, a difference in tonality when it comes to arranging, because of the jazz background. There is a chance for greater innovation because of the younger generation.

[a band plays steel pan music with a jazz influence]

EHRLICH: Steel pan music is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s great contributions to world culture. It was born in the country’s hard-scrabble working class districts and had to fight for respectability. Now that the music is universally accepted, some steel pan players say they must fight to keep the music evolving in ever new and innovative directions.

[a band plays steel pan music in orchestral style with a grand climax]

For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security