Between Heritage Affects and Social Effects: Empathy and Indifference in the Heritagization of Afro-Montevidean Candombe

30 minutes

During the last decades, Afro-Montevidean candombe drum music has experienced an ever larger visibility and valorization in the Uruguayan public sphere, thus putting into question the country’s alleged “whiteness.” This process reached its highest point with the inscription of “Candombe and its socio-cultural space” by initiative of the Uruguayan state on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009. In this paper, I interpret the affective responses of some of the persons recognized by the respective Uruguayan state agencies as “heritage bearers” to the heritagization of candombe in relation with their historical experiences as well as with the wider Uruguayan social context. For that purpose, I analyze data from interviews and participant observation conducted in Montevideo since 2013. These and other sources are interpreted within the theoretical framework of critical heritage studies, combining theories centred on the representational and discursive nature of heritage, with newer approaches that include a focus on embodiment and affect. In this way, the social effects of some affects associated to heritage come to the fore.  

The general argument advanced here is that although heritage policies about candombe are intended to convey a sense of empathy toward Afro-Uruguayans and are largely experienced as such by the heritage bearers, they tend to mask a social indifference to issues of racial discrimination and inequality in the wider Urugayan society. In order to make this point, I will look first at how the heritage bearers affectively link the heritagization of candombe with their embodied knowledge about the Transatlantic trade with enslaved Africans as well as with their direct historical experience of the traumatic demolition of the most important Montevidean conventillos. These housing projects for the urban poor, built between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, were very important spaces of cultural creativity for Afro-Montevidean music and culture in general. Thus, they remain among the most important symbols of Afro-Montevidean culture and are the main reference points for the different contemporary candombe styles. With regard to these experiences, heritage bearers feel the heritagization of candombe to be a reparation of sorts for the hardships they and their ancestors have gone through. Secondly, I relate the affects associated to the heritagization of candombe described before with the overall social context, which is characterized by a historical continuity in everyday racism and social inequality affecting Black Uruguayans. I contend that being purposefully disconnected from these issues, the heritagization of candombe remains a shallow endeavour that cannot succeed in the aim of creating empathy and compassion and thus making the Uruguayan society more egalitarian. In conclusion, I argue that state-sponsored intangible heritage initiatives in general have to be examined critically as to the ways they appeal affectively to heritage bearers and audiences, conveying a sense of empathy in overall social contexts which are, in fact, mostly indifferent to problems affecting the people whose cultural forms are being recognized as heritage.

independent researcher