From Cadiz to Montevideo: the Uruguayan Murga

Two essential cultural expressions of the Uruguayan Carnival are the murga, of Spanish origin, together with the candombe, of African origin, which is part of the national identity and its great popular celebration.

From Cadiz to Montevideo: the Uruguayan Murga
A Montevideo murga: Murga Agarrate Catalina.

The murga, of Spanish origin, together with the candombe, of African origin, constitute the two essential cultural expressions of the Carnival in Uruguay, which is part of the national identity and is its great popular celebration.

A Carnival, where the Uruguayan people reflect themselves as a society, during the almost forty days of its celebration, from the end of January to the beginning of March, which makes it the longest in the world. Even more, if we take into account that many of the activities are practiced throughout the year, in official events, workshops, shows, and festivals.

The origin of the celebration of the Carnival in Uruguay dates back to the 19th century and it is estimated that in 1865 the first comparsa was created, but it is at the beginning of the last century, in 1909, when the murga, coming from Spain, appeared and was incorporated with great success to the Carnival of this country and evolved into the current Uruguayan murga.

The story goes that that year a modest zarzuela company arrived in Montevideo, coming from Cadiz, to perform at the Casino theater and when they were unable to attract enough public in their performances, some of its members formed a sort of chirigota, the murga "La Gaditana", to go out to the streets to sing and collect money. The following year, a group of the Uruguayan carnival self-titled itself "Murga, la Gaditana que se va", to parody what happened with the Spanish artists, and from that moment on the word "Murga" began to be used to denominate this type of choral-theatrical-musical groups, whose lyrics have a high content of humor and social and political satire.

The first murga groups, in addition to their director, had six members and each of them played a different instrument: flute, piston, saxophone, bass drum, and cymbals, to which other homemade instruments were added, such as one made of pipes or tubes with a sheet of cigarette paper at one end, which the murguista vibrated with his voice. With a repertoire created from the music of existing songs, to which they modified the lyrics, following the model of the Carnival of Cadiz.

It also shares with the Cadiz murga the structure of the performance, which has three moments or parts: the presentation or greeting, where it communicates its story sypnotically; the central part, where it develops the story with cuplés and eventually a potpourri, similar to a small theatrical piece sung and, finally, the retreat or farewell, which is usually dedicated to someone or something more specific, its arrangements are more careful and it is the finishing touch of the director's work.

The number of members grew slowly and in 1918 there was an important change in the instrumental accompaniment, when the murga player, José Ministeri "Pepino", created the murga drums, consisting of a bass drum, cymbals, and a snare drum. It gives a new sound and a new rhythm, currently known as "marcha camión".

The current murgas are made up of seventeen people on stage: a director, thirteen singers, and the three percussionists that make up the drums, whose instruments are currently the only ones allowed. The director is in charge of setting the tone with his voice and directing and keeping the rhythm of the show, just as a choir director does. The thirteen singers of the choir are divided by "strings" according to the different tonalities of their voices, from the lowest to the highest tones.

The Montevideo Carnival

Unlike carnivals in the rest of the world, characterized by street parades, in Montevideo the carnival is essentially conceived as a great festival of outdoor performances in the "tablaos" or popular stages, mostly paid, distributed by the different neighborhoods, which have performances almost every night and where the different groups of Carnival are passing through during the long period of its celebration.

With a central "tablao", an open amphitheater called the Ramón Collazo Summer Theater, where the groups participate in an official contest, organized by the Municipality of Montevideo, in which a jury awards prizes, taking into account the lyrics, musicality, costumes, makeup, and staging.

Murgas play a central role in the Uruguayan Carnival and the prize for the best murga of the season is the most important award of the contest and the most awaited by the public, but there are also other categories of groups, which have been emerging over the years, perform in the "tablaos" and participate in the contest: revues (already in decline), parodists and humorists.

In addition to the Comparsas de Negros and Lubolos, which appear in the carnival parade of 1876 and have their splendor in the Llamadas, performing musical rhythms linked to Candombe, but also participate in the tablaos, with a smaller format of drums and dancers.

Text: Carlos Couto