As I strolled past crumbling colonial buildings in Montevideo’s Old City, I came upon street musicians playing tango. Passersby tucked thermoses with hot water under their arms and held calabash gourds filled with caffeine-rich yerba mate tea. Each sip they took from the stainless steel straws looked ceremonial, and I realized I had arrived at someplace special.
Tucked between Brazil and Argentina, it’s easy for travelers to skip over Uruguay, one of the smallest countries in South America. Globetrotters seeking an off-the-beaten path destination, though, are being lured by the deceptively cosmopolitan city of Montevideo.
My husband and I grew curious about traveling to Uruguay years ago, intrigued as we noticed more Uruguayan films making their way into U.S. film festivals. Then, Uruguay brought a delegation of musicians to perform at South by Southwest, and I took it as a sign.
Despite its size, Uruguay produces a staggering amount of innovative music, from tango fusions to the cool, subtropical music of the band Campo. During a SXSW interview, Uruguayan musician and producer Juan Campodónico told me, “If you take a taxi (in Montevideo), the taxi driver could be listening to tango, cumbia, Michael Jackson or Coldplay.” Having different cultures merge in sound, Campodónico said, is part of Uruguay’s musical landscape.
With the guidance of local musician and Casa Sarandi guesthouse owner Karen Higgs, our Montevideo musical journey began on a Friday night at Bar Tinkal, across from the city’s boardwalk the Rambla, which offers striking views of Río de la Plata.
Jetlagged after a long trek, we rallied to check out rock band Dos Daltons at the restaurant/bar overflowing with some of the city’s hippest 20-somethings. We were lucky to snag a table, and even luckier that Bar Tinkal happened to serve some of the city’s best steak sandwiches, known as chivitos, an iconic and delicious Uruguayan snack.
Dos Daltons, who are brothers and members of the popular alternative rock band Buenos Muchachos, performed an intimate set of atmospheric rock tunes. You could hear hints of Tom Waits when frontman Pedro Dalton sang in his distinctive voice. Fans at the tables just inches from us drank the local brew, Patricia, which came in 2-liter bottles, as they clung to Dos Daltons’ every word. The intimate space seemed like a rare treat for the mega fans. A window into a Montevideo most visitors don’t get to see was starting to open up for us, but the best was yet to come.
In Uruguay’s oldest theater, Teatro Solis, a much-buzzed-about show had been captivating audiences for five seasons. Each Saturday in the ornate 1856 theater, Uruguayan percussionist Nico Arnicho has hypnotized music lovers with a creative and moving musical experience.
Arnicho’s “Super Plugged” performance turns the idea of unplugged concerts on its head. Only a small group of about 30 people are allowed into the show, and we were fortunate to purchase the last two tickets available. Once in the smaller performance room, we noticed headphones resting on everyone’s seat. The absence of a stage meant everyone sat up close to Arnicho.
With the headphones on, each of us were plugged into his world, able to hear every ping, plunk and ding of the miked up instruments. And not your typical instruments, either. Arnicho produces beautiful sounds out of everything from rainsticks to household items like pots and plastic tubes.
There’s no band, no other members. Instead, Arnicho used a loop pedal machine to record rhythms and play them back, adding layers to the music and weaving songs together. His trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) lyrics spoke about being free of worries, liberty, happiness and freedom.
As Arnicho floated from tap dancing to playing his flute to singing about the human condition, we noticed how each choreographed move made it more than a concert but also performance art. Arnicho transfixed audiences at every turn with his innovative style, grace and compassion.
It was moments like these that made me feel like a local.
Two to tango
Both Uruguay and Argentina claim to have invented tango, but the two countries put their feud aside momentarily when they jointly asked UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural agency, to grant the musical form world heritage status in 2009.
It’s a win-win for visitors who can easily enjoy both Uruguayan and Argentine tango scenes because of the countries’ close proximity to each other. A ferry ride from Montevideo takes you across the Río de la Plata to Buenos Aires in about three hours.
Following Montevideo’s tango scene meant discovering places like the Museo del Vino, a small wine bar where everyone seemed to know each other. On one particular night, vocalist Ricardo Olivera, whom Higgs described as the “Tom Jones of tango,” gave an engaging set full of humor and storytelling. His amazing voice filled the cozy confines, which displayed Uruguay’s finest wines from floor to ceiling.
The sounds of Uruguay can also be enjoyed outdoors among the hundreds of mate drinkers. At the Tristan Narvaja Sunday market, we stopped to soak up the tango rhythms of street musicians. The market, which sells everything from vintage license plates to underwear, takes over several blocks of city streets and makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll.
In neighborhood parks like Parque Rodó, drum circles can convene. While we were sorry to miss Montevideo’s all-female candombe drumming troupe, La Melaza, which plays on Sunday evenings, we did catch other informal co-ed groups gathered to play. Candombe, an African-rooted drumming style, has become a source of national pride showcasing Afro-Uruguayan heritage.
On our last night in Montevideo, we walked down eerily abandoned streets to get to an out-of-the-way and now defunct venue on the top floor of an old building. Multi-instrumentalist and adored Uruguayan musician Martín Buscaglia had a performance that brought together a diverse crowd ranging from young hipsters to women in their 50s. As his eclectic, experimental songs bounced from funk to electronic to rock, it was clear why his infectious music has reached audiences beyond Uruguay’s borders.
Getting into the unique rhythm of Montevideo life might seem tricky at first. You can’t find a soul on downtown streets on a Sunday morning. Shows hardly ever start when expected. But it doesn’t take long for visitors to become enveloped in Montevideo’s burgeoning cultural scene, which is quickly making Uruguay a country to watch.
SOUNDS OF URUGUAY IN AUSTIN
What: Uruguayan showcase at South by Southwest
When: March 18
Where: Speakeasy, 412 Congress Ave.
More information: sxsw.com and facebook.com/soundsfromuruguay. If you have a SXSW badge or wristband, that’s great. If not, that’s usually fine, too. Often, these shows are not too packed and tickets are available at the door. Check with the venue before the show and arrive early.
ABOUT THE SHOWCASING ARTISTS
Hip-hop fusion group Santullo: santullo.com.uy
Pop-rock band Boomerang: boomerang.com.uy
Rap group AFC: afc.com.uy
Rock/ska/punk band Once Tiros: oncetiros.com.uy
Folk-pop fusion Fede Graña & Los Prolijos: losprolijos.com
Vintage pop-rock fusion singer Max Capote: maxcapote.com (will play at a separate showcase March 20 at Red Eye Fly)
Listen to a Spotify playlist of these artists on our Cultura en Austin blog: cultura.blog.austin360.com
URUGUAY AT A GLANCE
- Uruguay captured the world’s attention recently when president José Mujica decided not to live the typical world leader lifestyle. He chooses to drive his own Volkswagen Beetle and lives in a farmhouse instead of a presidential palace.
- The tiny country also made a worldwide splash when it legalized gay marriage and marijuana.
- In 2013, “The Economist” named Uruguay its country of the year.