Archive | November, 2010

Paraguay’s Ayoreo Indians may be under threat from land speculators AND the Natural History Museum

17 Nov

The Ayoreo Indians of Paraguay are the only “uncontacted” tribe in South America outside of the Amazon basin. There is believed to be six or seven isolated groups, numbering around 150 people in total. They live in the Gran Chaco area of Paraguay, an arid, sparsely-populated area of land, which is under increasing threat. One problem that makes Gran Chaco’s problems so much more severe than those facing the Amazon is that there are so many different ways to approach the area and its relative size. It’s land edges into Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and of course Paraguay, where the Ayoreo live, and comparatively Gran Chaco is 650,000 square kilometres in size compared to the Amazon basin’s 8 million square kilometres, which is why even though much has been done to deforest the Amazon they have only ever trimmed parts off the sides and struggled to find economic value from going too deep into the region as the cost of bringing goods back out again is not worthwhile. Gran Chaco on the other hand has better roads and far easier access to Brazil, Argentina and crucially Chile where products can be solled to the Far East.

The greatest current threat to the tribe is a Brazilian firm Yaguarete Porá who own a 78,000 hectare plot near where Ayoreo have been sighted. The firm plans to bulldoze most of the area and make it into a cattle ranch, a project which will undermine the Ayoreo’s lifestyle considerably.

However, an interesting new threat has recently emerged in the Natural History Museum who are planning on sending a 60-strong expedition of scientists to the area in order to understand better the area. The concern with this expedition is that white man diseases such as measles and smallpox, as well as common colds and flu, will have a serious effect on the Ayoreo population. This was documented in a recent article in the Telegraph, explaining this point further:

“If this expedition goes ahead, we will not be able to understand why you prefer to lose human lives just because the English scientists want to study plants and animals,” said a statement from Iniciativa Amotocodie, an indigenous peoples’ protection group. “The people die in the forest frequently from catching white people’s diseases. It’s very serious. It’s like genocide.”

The article also includes details of the proposed expedition:

It is, of course, this enticing diversity which is so appealing to the Natural History Museum. The last serious study of the Chaco was carried out 100 years ago, by Swiss scientists. Forty Paraguayan scientists, joined by 20 from London, will spend a month there, documenting flora, fauna, insects, birds, amphibians and mammals. They hope to establish a baseline against which to measure future change – whether man-made or due to climate change. Eighteen months in the planning, this is one of the largest expeditions undertaken by the museum in more than 50 years and is believed to be costing more than £300,000.

More information on the Ayoreo can be found at the Survival International website.

Uruguay’s African Roots

11 Nov

One of the fascinating aspects of Uruguayan culture is the fact that through colonisation it managed to keep intact customs passed on from the slaves. Candombe is a style of drumming, which also incorporates dance and costumes, that was brought over by African slaves in the early 19th century. It has strong links with drumming practices in the Bantu regions of Africa, countries now known as Nigeria, Congo and Zimbabwe. Whereas in most instances of colonisations the activities of the slaves were marginalised in Montevideo they were eventually adopted by the middle and upper classes (although there is history of some defiance) in the 1860s and 1870s. The people were so enamoured with the style that they went so far as blacking up their faces and wearing the same basic clothing as the slaves.

Now, candombe is completely integrated with the whites of Uruguay, and is one of their proudest customs. Montevideo is continually thriving with the sound of drums. Every neighbourhood within the city has their own group who will parade the streets once or twice a week, with one performance normally on the weekend. In addition, the Wise Men’s Parade just after Christmas and Montevideo carnival allow the groups to compete to be the best group in the city.

The heritage of Uruguay is something I find infinitely interesting, but has always been quite hard to find information about, as aside from my time in Montevideo when I would very slowly read about it in Spanish, it is hard to get information. Which is why I was very excited to find out that a book has now been published. It’s called Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay and has been written by George Reid Andrews. You can check out the book HERE. And below, is an extract with some more, very interesting information about Uruguay’s Afro-origins.

Though its roots are African, candombe was created in Uruguay and exists nowhere else, my friends told me. Upon learning that I had joined a comparsa and paraded in that year’s Llamadas, a city cultural official whom I met toward the end of my stay smiled delightedly and said that I could not possibly have had a more profoundly Uruguayan experience–which I think is probably true. But as they embrace candombe as a core component of national identity, no one ever mentions feeling under siege by internationalization. The drummers seem to come to candombe not from feelings of defensiveness but for purely positive reasons, and for love of the music itself.

As we have seen, Uruguayans love candombe, and for good reason. Like samba, salsa, merengue, jazz, funk, hip-hop, and all the other African-based “national rhythms,” it is a musical form that, in the words of one informant, “won’t let you sit still.” And over the last hundred years, the comparsas have developed methods of playing it that enable them to take people with limited musical experience and turn them into juggernauts of rhythm. The music is played on three types of drums–chico, repique, and piano–each of which has a different voice–alto, tenor, and bass, respectively–and plays a different rhythmic figure. The piano hits heavy downbeats on one and four, with intervening syncopated eighth and sixteenth notes; the chico leaps in immediately following each beat with a sequence of three sixteenth notes. Both drums pound out the same stuttering phrases over and over again, in a deep aesthetic of monotony; the repique players have more freedom to improvise, and drive the group forward with their counterrhythms.

The result, when played at maximum volume and with maximum force and authority, is irresistibly powerful and compelling. Here we might recall Tomás Olivera’s memories of the 1956 Llamadas: “The cheering and applause were like an earthquake; and . . . with the thundering of the drums, the shouts of the spectators, the bombs and rockets shooting up into the sky, one had the sense that the buildings on each side of the street were about to explode into thousands of pieces.” This is an accurate and not at all exaggerated description of what it feels like to march and drum with a comparsa. The waves of rhythm put out by our drums did indeed feel strong enough to demolish the buildings around us. As we marched along on our weekly practices, we set off every car and building alarm en route; yet the whooping alarms could barely be heard as tiny yawps above the thunderous din.

Several of the drummers I talked to described the feeling of being “transported” while marching; and as we marched and drummed, digging deeper and deeper into the groove, I did feel simultaneously rooted and floating. The force of gravity and the steady reassurance of the ground had never seemed so necessary, to keep us from levitating off down the street on the cresting waves of rhythm. Yet the ground provided no rest, and was itself charged with surging electrical forces that flowed through us in a steady pulsing voltage. Everything was suffused with rhythm: the air, the ground, the universe, our bodies, our organs, and of course our drums. We were simultaneously the source, the conduit, and the recipient of that rhythm, I and fifty other drummers, hands rising and falling, legs stepping and marching, all together, all as one.

Yes, obviously the feeling is sexual–how could it not be, with these rich currents flowing through you? At the end we were exhausted, drenched with sweat, yet refreshed, relaxed, and glowing. Everyone felt good after drumming–unless, that is, we had suffered injury or exhaustion along the way, which are frequent parts of the enterprise. The marches “are a test of exceptional physical strength,” notes one analysis of the comparsas, “and psychic strength as well.” That is an exaggeration, I would say; anyone in reasonable physical condition can carry and play the drums. But there is no question that doing so while marching, listening to the rest of the group, and maintaining perfect rhythm (or trying to) for an hour or more is intensely demanding. And all drummers, even the most experienced, can tear skin off their hands as they pound the leather drumheads. Ever “the good warriors” invoked by Lobo Núñez, drummers are expected to ignore their wounds and play through the pain, heads held high and gazing coolly into the distance.

Bloodshed is just one part of the military character of the comparsas. The experience of preparing for the Llamadas is not unlike going through boot camp. There are clear lines of authority and command, based on the age, experience, and ability of the different members. Our instructor Miguel, his colleague Sergio, and their lieutenants, all work to instill a kind of martial discipline. Miguel and Sergio in particular adopt a classic good cop/bad cop approach. As we march, Sergio stalks up and down the ranks, bawling us out for our numerous shortcomings. Miguel looks on gloomily, leaving us to guess whether he is more saddened by Sergio’s ferocity or by our clumsy mediocrity.

As in any military unit, we pass long stretches of boredom and inactivity punctuated by brief bursts of intense action and excitement. Since comparsas field a lot of people, we routinely spend an hour or more waiting for everyone to show up, for drums to be tuned, for ranks to form, and so on. We pass the time smoking, joking, complaining about our “officers”; and then it is time to go over the top, into action.

These experiences produce their intended results, and gradually one becomes part of the unit, bonded to one’s fellow drummers.

From Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay, by George Reid Andrews. Copyright (c) 2010 The University of North Carolina Press.

Read more from Blackness in the White Nation: A History of Afro-Uruguay HERE

Remains of Bolivian pilot found frozen and intact 20 years after going missing

11 Nov

In spirit with my recent trend for blogging about slightly ridiculous things that have happened in South America, such as fire hurricanes, plane crashes and the black death, I figured I would quickly post this new story from Bolivia this week. The thing I really like about this story is the fact that the body was so completely frozen that it ended up ripping in half as they pulled it from the plane. No longer do cartoons or plain ol’ TV shows seem so stupid for showing people snapping in two after getting a bit frozzen.

The corpse of a Bolivian pilot was found in the country’s snow caped mountain tops east of its capital, La Paz, 20 years after a plane crash, local media reported Wednesday.

Benjamin Pabon Galindo died on October 19, 1990 after crashing a plane while transporting meat from Bolivia’s northern Amazonian region of Beni to La Paz. Apparently, due to technical failure and severe weather conditions, the plane crashed into the Huayna Potosi mountain.

Carlos Pabon, the pilot’s father, spoke on a local TV network on Wednesday, saying the body was found intact and still wearing original clothing. However, the body was completely frozen, and while rescuers were pulling out the body out of the pilot seat, it tore in half.

“In a mixture of joy, tears, and pain, we received my brother’s remain,” Miguel Angel Pabon said. “At last, we will have a place where we can offer him our prayers.”

Eat, Drink and Be Merry In Rio

10 Nov

For those of you who know and love the ‘Marvellous City’, it may come as no surprise that it was recently voted the world’s happiest city in a survey conducted for and published by Rio has an infectious energy, a buzz that imbues you with a feel-good vibe for weeks after you leave. Music and dancing plays a good part in that but happiness also comes from eating and drinking well, and Rio certainly has no shortages of fantastic eateries and bars that enable you to lead the good life. Discover the best that Rio has to offer and eat, drink and be merry!


One of Rio’s more affluent neighbourhoods, Leblon is home to some of Rio’s best restaurants and bars. This area is a foodie’s heaven but if your wallet doesn’t quite match your taste buds, most restaurants offer a lunchtime three-course, pre-fix menu for a fraction of the price that you will be charged at dinner. One of the best, both for the quality of the Italian/Brazilian fusion food and the stunning decor, not to mention the great people-watching potential (the patrons are made up of Rio’s young and beautiful), is Zuka. Either pre- or post-dinner, head on down to the Academia da Cachaça, a Leblon institution which sells 500 types of cachaça, a Brazillian rum made from sugar cane.

Leblon Beach[flickr size=”small”]


The beach is lined with some of the best hotels in Rio de Janeiro and sun-worshippers and surfers flock to Ipanema at the weekend. There are plenty of eating and drinking options on the beach itself but you can’t visit Ipanema without having a drink in Bar Garota de Ipanema. In its previous incarnation as Vellosa Bar, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ was penned here, hence the reason for its change of name. Once you’ve had a drink or two and hummed along to the classic bossa nova song, indulge in a Brazilian feast at Porcão, a traditional churrascaria where you can eat as much barbecued meat as you can fit in!


This district in the Centro neighbourhood houses some architecturally beautiful buildings dating back to the emergence of the republic but it’s when the sun goes down that the area really comes to life, for Lapa is also known for its nightlife. Clubs, bars and restaurants fill with the sounds of samba music but one of the best is surely Café Sacrilégio. Samba, choro, maxixe, waltz and polka beats are all played by the brilliant live band in this cafe housed in a renovated heritage building. Line your stomach and fuel up in preparation for all that dancing at Nova Capela, for some typical Carioca cuisine.

Rio is bursting with excellent places to chow down and drink up, whether you’re after something upmarket at a a Michelin star restaurant in a Rio de Janeiro hotel, or a simple salad and a Caipirinha at a beachfront cafe. Eat like a king, have a few drinks and pull on your dancing shoes to end the perfect Rio night with a spot of salsa.