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.