CLEARLY, Hugo Medrano has a thing for authenticity. When the GALA Hispanic Theatre's artistic director set out to build a show around Uruguay's candombe music, he didn't stop at poring over academic musicology or raiding the world-music bins at Tower Records. Medrano went right to the source.
"Candombe! Tango Negro" transports us to the courtyard of Mediomundo, a notorious Montevideo tenement, with an attention to detail made possible by two former residents, bandleader Waldemar "Cachila" Silva and artist Carlos Paez Vilar, who designed the set. "I compiled the story and I had a writer in Uruguay [Jorge Emilio Cardoso] who wrote the script," Medrano explains. "And Cachila helped us with the characters in the play and what kind of songs would fit into a particular situation."
According to Medrano, Mediomundo looms large in Uruguay's cultural history. Populated by marginalized blacks -- descendants of African slaves -- and immigrants, the tenement was a focal point of the candombe scene and became a symbol of minority oppression when it was razed in 1978 by a rightist military regime. (Mediomundo didn't jibe with the government's gentrified, explicitly Spanish-flavored vision for the Uruguayan capital.)
Candombe, an Afro-tango genre whose lyrics celebrate ethnicity, also clashed with the regime's politics. "Overtly, it's about happiness, jubilation -- particularly because the black man used the drum as his own form of entertainment whenever he was free from his master," says Silva, through an interpreter. "The drum call would begin on different street corners -- one would start and the next would come in." Still, Medrano adds, "I think all of the songs are -- not necessarily political -- but they talk about the black diaspora."
Medrano's and Cardoso's script (performed in Spanish with simultaneous English interpretation available) touches on racial politics but focuses more on the candombe as a symbol of pride and community. And helping to bring that community to rhythmic life are five members of Silva's popular 60-member band, including two of his sons and a nephew. The family vibe extends to the show itself; Silva's grandmother, at one time Mediomundo's resident manager, is a central character in the script.
In that respect, "Candombe! Tango Negro" offers an intriguing blend of the political and the personal in celebrating a musical form once threatened by neo-fascist oppression. Silva and his troupe are testaments to candombe's resilience and continuing popularity. And, although gaucho music, with its European roots, remains Uruguay's "official" folkloric music, Silva notes with some satisfaction that, "Unofficially, candombe is the music that is most popularly used to represent Uruguay to the outside world."