The Record
3:30 pm
Tue February 28, 2012

Carnaval In Uruguay: Choir Competitions In The Streets

Originally published on Thu March 1, 2012 3:00 pm

Uruguay boasts that it has the longest Carnival celebration not just in Latin America, but the world. The 40-day celebration is dotted with makeshift stages all around the capital city of Montevideo for performances of choral music called murga. Murga is both entertainment and a sociopolitical commentary that survived the military dictatorship of the 1970s.

Murga songs like "Los Curtidores de Hongos," which tells the story of the oldest murga choir in Uruguay, feature a guttural, forceful tone of singing that has been with the style from the beginning. Eduardo Rabelino, director of the Museum of Carnaval in Montevideo, says murga began in the working class. Street salesmen would sing in the same tone that they'd shout out on the streets.

Some were born of labor unions, Rabelino says. Six or seven street musicians who'd get together to have a good time and sing about what was happening in society. The tradition came to Uruguay via Cadíz, Spain, more than 100 years ago, where there is a similar choral music called chirigota. Today, a murga choir is made up of 13 voices singing complex harmonies, accompanied by three percussionists plus a choral director.

The performers wear elaborate, circus-like costumes and makeup, and compete every Carnaval. Now some choirs even have sponsors and CDs. But they still parody the talk of the town that year — be it corrupt politicians, a spike in violence or that annoying recording you get when you call for a taxi.

Daniel Angel Carluccio, the director of Los Curtidores de Hongos, says the riskiest time for murga was during Uruguay's military dictatorship of the '70s and early '80s. Carluccio had just joined a group then. He says when choirs wanted to criticize the government they had to use metaphors to avoid being censored. Murga choirs formed a bond with the public during that time.

At today's Carnavals, you can see that bond at the tablados, the makeshift stages that are set up all over Montevideo.

Agarrate Catalina is one of the younger murga choirs and last year's competition winner. The name is a popular saying that basically means "Watch out, something's about to happen." In just one song, the choir goes from making fun of hippie culture to criticizing the former president.

"Murga attacks everything," says Yamandú Cardozo, the director of Agarrate Catalina.

Dozens of young murga choirs have formed since the '90s. Groups enunciate better now. There are female singers and different instruments. But Cardozo says it's important to preserve certain elements of how murga has always been.

Of the people who sing murga, Cardozo says the majority of them make a living doing something else — they work in a factory or an office. They are artists for a month and a half, and then go back to their daily lives. So, he says, that's why murga doesn't represent the masses; they are the masses.

When it's time for the music to begin, says Cardozo, it's just 13 guys singing their hearts out in front of their people.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Uruguay boasts that it has the longest Carnival celebration, not just in Latin America, but in the world. It goes on for 40 days. Makeshift stages pop up all around the capital city of Montevideo for performances of a choral music called murga. Murga is both a form of entertainment and a sociopolitical commentary that survived the military dictatorship of the 1970s.

Martina Castro reports from Montevideo.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

MARTINA CASTRO, BYLINE: Listen, the song says.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: This song tells the story of the oldest murga choir in Uruguay. It's called Los Curtidores de Hongos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: That guttural, forceful tone of singing has been with murga from the beginning. Eduardo Rabelino, director of the Museum of Carnaval in Montevideo, says murga was working class. Street salesmen would sing in the same tone that they'd shout out on the streets.

EDUARDO RABELINO: (Foreign Language Spoken).

CASTRO: Some were born of labor unions, Rabelino says, six or seven street musicians who'd get together to have a good time and sing about what was happening in society. The tradition came to Uruguay via Cadiz, Spain more than 100 years ago, where they have a similar choral music called chirigota.

Today, a murga choir is made up of 13 voices singing complex harmonies accompanied by three percussionists, plus a choral director.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: They wear elaborate, circus-like costumes and makeup and compete every Carnaval. Now, some choirs even have sponsors and CDs, but they still parody the talk of the town that year, be it corrupt politicians, a spike in violence or that annoying recording you get when you call for a taxi.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: Daniel Angel Carluccio is the director of Los Curtidores de Hongos.

DANIEL ANGEL CARLUCCIO: (Foreign Language Spoken).

CASTRO: He says the riskiest time for murga was during Uruguay's military dictatorship of the '70s and early '80s. Carluccio had just joined a group then. He says when choirs wanted to criticize the government, they had to use metaphors to avoid being censored. Murga choirs formed a bond with the public during that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: Today, you can see that bond at the tablados, makeshift stages that are set up all over Montevideo, like this one at the Defensor Sporting Club.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: This is Agarrate Catalina, one of the younger murga choirs and last year's competition winner. The name is a popular saying here that basically means, watch out because something's about to happen. In just one song, they'll go from making fun of hippie culture to criticizing their former president.

YAMANDU CARDOZO: (Foreign Language Spoken).

CASTRO: Murga attacks everything, says Yamandu Cardozo. He's the director of Agarrate Catalina.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: Dozens of young murga choirs have formed since the '90s. Groups enunciate better now. There are female singers and different instruments, but Cardozo says it's important to preserve certain elements of how murga has always been.

CARDOZO: (Foreign Language Spoken).

CASTRO: Of the people who sing murga, Cardozo says, the majority of them make a living doing something else. They work in a factory or an office. They're artists for a month and a half and then go back to their daily lives. So, he says, that's why murga doesn't represent the masses. They are the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: Cardozo says, when it's time for the music to begin, it's just 13 guys singing their hearts out in front of their people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

CASTRO: For NPR News, I'm Martina Castro in Montevideo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.