la Murga 4

the music

if you read the beginning of this piece, you know that it was initially the call of the drums that drew me into the Murga. Without the far reaching sounds of the Bombas, I might never have realized that Murga existed. Truly it was luck that I happened upon the right park in the right barrio at the right time.

Otherwise I might be writing this about Camdombe or la Chacarera… but not Tango. I was never meant to find Tango on this trip:)

It’s serious. It’s big. The drum hangs in front along the torso, tangent, held by a thick strap coming from it’s top, over the drummers shoulder, across and down the back, and under the other arm. It’s a very masculine role. There are very few female bomberos, minus the one incredibly cute little blonde girl in the Chiflados who was further distinguished from the pack by the fact that her mini-drum glowed blue like a low rider and had a disco ball inside to accompany the lights. There’s a pic in the gallery looking pretty somber.

One hand pounds out the bass, while the other, holding a cymbal, creates more intricate rhythms. It can produce rattles and piercing crashes by carressing or hitting another small cymbal which is attached to the top of the drum at eye level via a large, heavy-weight spring. The cymbal is held between the thumb, index and middle fingers, and humorously the pinky often sticks out as if delicately holding a glass of wine. These guys aren’t delicate. They’re often shirtless, heavily tatooed, drinking booze, talking dirty and beating the shit out of a giant drum… and sticking out their pinkies.

With the resounding boom of the bass, and the more intricate and high pitched cymbals, each Bombero can produce a lot of sound. 20 of them can shake a barrio. With 2 additional snare drummers and 5 guys on brass it’s overwhelming. All but 1 or 2 of the bombas have to drop out when the singing starts so they can be heard.

In our coursus, the singers took the stage along with one or two representatives of each group: children, the older women…etc as well as the “mascots,” who in our case were 3 guys with giant hand crafted foam heads of the three stooges (“Los Tres Chiflados”). That’s the name of the show in Latin America.

Different singers came forward to the microphones. There was an opening song, and a closing song that were fairly straight forward. Though I had absolutely no idea what they were saying I had heard the songs in the middle were often charged with social and political commentary.

Flor was one of the few people in the group who spoke English, and she was also one of the wranglers in charge of keeping the group functioning (as well as being a very talented dancer). When I asked about the lyrics, and specifically if she could possibly show me some, she sent me an email with the lyrics to six songs attached. Awesome. I still haven’t translated them all, and even once I have, still probably won’t understand the majority of the references. Maybe you can do better than I… the lyrics are in the gallery above.

The Murga seems to have been an important outlet for raising issues pertinent to the people of the Barrio, specifically the lower classes… so much so that it was outlawed entirely during the Military Dictatorship. I haven’t been able to find anything that shows what Murga looked like before El Militar took power…. one single black and white photo of a group posing with their drums… I’m not sure if much exists. If it does, let me know.

The dance itself seems to speak of the frenetic energy of that revolution, but it’s expressed in a way that is solely celebratory. The dancer is always smiling. It is clear that it has evolved and changed, influenced by popular culture with everything from elements of Afro Brazillian to Hip Hop, but there is most definitely a style of its own. There are very defined moves that span the barrios… and no one seemed to know how long they’d been around or where they came from.

So was it just a party? The people in the streets didn’t seem to be visibly engaged in the lyrics… in any subversive or critical thought. It was a party.

In Uruguay, la Murga is a totally different form. The focus is on a large chorus of men, the complexity of their harmonies, and the ideas they are bringing to the table usually through humor. There are actually rules for how many singers and musicians are allowed as well as many other components of the coursu, because the whole thing is a competition. The style of the music can even sometimes mimic pop songs, but it’s always distinguishable as the harmonies have a very distinct quality. There is little if no dancing, and supposedly the lyrics are still really charged. It’s on the radio (on more leftist channels). It’s Uruguayan. It’s a symbol of pride for them, like maté. To a Uruguayan, La Murga Portena isn’t Murga at all. Their murga performed on big stages, and the edifices of Montevideo display posters for “the greatest of 09″ Murga groups. Murga Portena seems to have taken a different, more underground role in the barrio. It’s possible to live in Buenos Aires and to never see or hear it – quite easily.

It wasn’t until later that I got the sense that something had happened to Murga Portena. I can’t say that with certainty as I wasn’t around… but no one I asked seemed to know. Whereas it was very important in Capoeira to learn about its history, Murga seemed to be only be conscious of the present. Was it always like this, or did Murga Portena lose the it’s role in Porteno culture? Perhaps because MTV stepped in? And it’s not as if Los Portenos forgot how to protest. When there’s a march, it’s serious, and the city stops. There is a constant reminder of the 33,000 who are still missing, abducted by the Militar. La Lucha, the fight, is still alive here.

At one point I remember asking how the Chiflados actually paid for the buses, the drinks, (and the ham and cheese sandwiches) that kept it all going. The money was from the city. Funds for cultural events – it makes sense – doing this for the people. But I wonder if a government sponsored art perhaps needs to drop some of the criticisms of it’s sponsor. There are apparently groups that aren’t sponsored, in the poorer barrios outside the center of the city. I have no idea what goes on there, and I don’t think I’ll be finding out on this trip. Que Lastima…

let
me know
what you think
just remember i have feelings too

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