Being very interested in music, one of the things I found most fascinating while traveling in SA was the wide range of African influences which have been mixed over the centuries and resulted in some of the most interesting forms of artistic expression in modern times. Been some time since I’ve written here, so today I’ll give you a brief glimpse of the ‘murgas‘.
The origins of the modern ‘murgas’ trace back to the colonial days. It’s an ancient form which was born out of the culture and drumming of the African slaves who were brought to Buenos Aires. The story is somewhat similar to that of the Blues in North America (Mississippi Delta and all that) where the African slaves had also been taken to work.
The slaves would secretly gather around fires – without the knowledge of their masters – to dance to the roar of the drums. They’d writhe and jump and dance nonstop while kicking the air, perhaps a symbol of breaking the chains, and demanding their rightful liberation from a life of slavery. Some of them would even wear their masters’ clothing inside out: the cloth would end up all sweaty, so this way they could turn the clothes back again and let them dry naturally, and so that their masters wouldn’t notice. Satin is used in the outfits (example here).
The cultural influence lasted centuries and it was enriched by the arrival of the European immigrants to Río de la Plata in the beginning of the 20th century. Different elements (from 1920 onwards) got mixed, originating the ‘murga porteña‘: the frock coat and top hat, the European carnival, the pantomime, the humour, the irony, the Pierrot and the Columbine characters, etc. The ‘murga’ is also a tool of social criticism, but generally those who meet to celebrate the carnival are considered members of a commune where all are equal – no social, racial, any differences. It’s an entertaining event embraced and cherished by the families… the neighbourhoods, the whole community.
There are two main geographical ‘murga centers’: Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The ‘murga’ from the first is more vocal, while the one from the latter is more focused on dancing. However, both countries have embraced a bit of the other, especially in their popular music, through artists as Bersuit Vergarabat (Argentina) and Alejandro Balbis (Uruguay), for example.
From a musician’s perspective and to add a bit of depth, here’s a formation description I took from Wikipedia: “the singers perform in polyphony using up to five vocal parts. Vocal production tends to be nasal and loud with little variation in volume. The percussion instruments, derived from the European military band, are bombo (a shallow bass drum worn at the waist and played horizontally), redoblante (snare drum) and platillos (clash cymbals). The two most important pieces of the performance are the opening song (saludo) and the exit song (retirada or despedida).“