Las Llamadas – Carnival in Montevideo
Carnival in Montevideo: lots of drumming, lots of vibrant colours, lots of dancing, lots of flag waving, lots of feathers, lots of bare skin, lots of make-up, and a lot of fun!
The carnival celebrations in Montevideo are the longest in the world, lasting a full 40 days. That’s partly because they don’t follow the Christian calendar where carnival always ends when Lent begins, 6 weeks before Easter. In Uruguay they always start in the third week of January and come to a close in March.
Some of the celebrations have their roots in the traditions of African slaves. Las Llamadas (The Calls) are two evenings of parades, but also a competition. The name comes from the old tradition of the African slaves beating their drums to call the neighbourhood for a meeting. Nowadays this procession unites Afro-Uruguayans and Euro-Uruguayans of all ages in a festive mood.
This main event differs very much from what people might expect from other locations, especially the famous carnival in Brazil, Uruguay’s neighbour to the north. You won’t see a flotilla of floats, and you won’t hear deafening Samba music coming out of enormous speakers.
The parading of individual Las Llamadas groups follows a fairly strict pattern
Ahead of the group walk three or four people stretching a banner with the group’s name.
Next follows a strong man carrying a large upright banner with the group’s emblem. This is fixed to a pole with a crossbar. The bearer controls it with ropes coming down each side from the crossbar. Some energetic bearers wave the banner with these ropes up and down, left and right to the rhythm of the beating drums.
Then there are the flag wavers, the ‘Portabanderas‘. All flags are in the groups’ specific colours but patterns vary greatly. Most flags are roughly two by three-and-a-half to four meters. A highly applauded skill is when the bearer swipes his flag in a brisk movement low across the heads of the spectators; all hands go up to touch the flag. Some groups we saw, performed highly synchronised flag waving; for example changing, on command, from one kerbside to the other.
After that comes a small group carrying one moon and two stars, held up on long sticks. These three objects look like large lanterns without a light inside. They are symbolic of the connection with Islam, the traditional religion of the slaves’ homelands. A few groups carry additional items, like drum-shaped lanterns.
Usually, directly behind the flag wavers (occasionally after the moon and stars – this order seems to vary), the first dancing girls appear. Their number can range from around 20 to well over 80 – depending the group’s size. Participating groups always represent a particular barrio (suburb) of Montevideo, and some seem to attract more members than others. Groups who have more dancers sometimes have the girls dressed in three distinguishably different costumes. And the further back, the more elaborate their head gear and the tinier their bikinis. Something we noticed and appreciated was that women of all ages and body shapes participated with enthusiasm – certainly not just ‘beauty queens’. (Yasha also observed that within groups, who all apparently wore the same outfit, some women were more modestly covered than others.)
After the dancing women comes a group, which in this parade carries a very special significance:
- La Mama Vieja (Old Mother), who is always dressed in something which represents an early nineteen-hundreds traditional African housewife costume, although much more elaborate.
- La Mama Vieja’s husband El Gramillero (Medicine Man), with a grey beard and leaning on a walking stick. He often carries a bag with herbs in it in one hand. His role is to dance away the evil spirits, but it is usually more of a shuffle.
- El Escobillero (Broom Man) who carries a stick, shaped like a broom or feather-duster, and often swirls it on the tip of his fingers, or even chin and head, to symbolise freedom from slavery.
Some groups have only two couples of elderly people, others might have five or more couples. Most of them are really well into their sixties or seventies yet participate in a very lively manner. In several groups we observed a lot more elderly women than men.
The final dancers, just in front of the drummers, are the most elaborately dressed (or undressed). One or two couples – he wears a suit, often in tuxedo cut, very shiny and elegant; she, the ‘Vedette‘, usually wears hardly anything at all, except a thousand rhinestones, all held together with some silver and a lot of nothing. In a few groups we got the impression that the ‘Vedette’ might have been a transsexual.
The closing party of each group are the drummers, the ‘Lubolos‘, all beating the same rhythm, the ‘Candombe‘. Most groups seem to have a minimum of 50 to 80 drummers, some even more. In larger groups the drummers tend to wear two or three slightly different costumes. Some wear colourful and ‘scary’, African themed, face masks. Others have their faces elaborately painted.
If you are ever near Montevideo around the time of ‘Las Llamadas‘ make sure you go! It’s such a unique experience, far from the busy and touristy carnival parades in Rio de Janeiro. In Montevideo it’s still an event for locals by locals, and tourists come in their hundreds – not thousands.
Enough to read – below you will find more photos (we published a second gallery).
Not many are really brilliant but they caught the atmosphere well. The light was too little, a flash wouldn’t reach far enough, and nobody was standing still. (What did I expect?) I took some photos on Friday at the staging area which was only illuminated by some yellow street lights – hence they have a very yellow tinge.
You can find all carnival events online [in Spanish] .
Tickets for Las Llamadas are sold in all ABITAB stores, unfortunately not online [at time of writing].
We bought tickets for the Thursday parade with the expectation that this would be quieter. We were right – it was. In our seating group the entire back row remained vacant. Tickets for the tourist seating are 550 Pesos/seat. Cheaper seats start at 150 Pesos. Honestly: the seats are bloody awful, hard (despite a thin cushion) and with useless backrests. The cheaper seats don’t have the cushion, and that’s the only difference there is… Okay, the cheaper seating was more crowded but that’s part of the entire experience! Try to ask for front row seats if you want to take photos, as from the second or third row you won’t be able keep the high fence out of your shots (as in our video)!
We noticed that some house owners along the parade road, Calle Isla de las Flores, sell tickets for their balconies, starting around 600 Pesos.
In hindsight we regret that we didn’t buy Friday tickets too. The parade is a judged competition and all winning groups, from place 1 to place 8, were marching on Friday, the second day. We went without tickets but people were stacked closely behind the seat rows with no way to see anything from the back… Hence I only took photos at one of the two staging areas.
As one source of information I used this blog post .
Uruguay: Spirit of Afro Resistance Alive in Candombe
Las Llamadas Bring Uruguay Carnival to Life