Friday, February 12, 2010

Murga, She Wrote

As I mentioned at the end of my soccer post, last night's excellent adventure also included a trip to a Murga performance.  Murga is a Uruguayan style of theater that is performed during Carnaval.  The performers consist of a large group of singers--generally a chorus of about 20 people, usually men--and three drummers.  One of the singers also jumps out and conducts from time to time.  The groups are generally not professional performers, and are usually just a collection of people who know each other, often from the same neighborhood.  Each group writes an original piece--about 45 minutes in length--focusing on a general theme, and offering humorous commentary on the last year's events, and numerous inside jokes.  The music is original (although sometimes borrowed for humorous purposes), and there are short scenes sprinkled throughout.  For those of you who attended summer camp with me at French Woods, this is just like the Sing skit, but on a massively impressive scale.  In the month-long Uruguayan Carnaval, these groups perform their shows several times, and they are ultimately judged at the end, with one group being crowned the winner.

You may have noticed that the list of performers did not include any musicians other than the three drummers.  This is because, aside from the very occasional mixing in of a lone acoustic guitar, the singers perform with only percussive accompaniment.  This means that, for 45 minutes, the singers need to rely only on each other and themselves to maintain the proper pitch.  If this doesn't sound impressive, consider that they're also singing in at least two and often three-part harmony.  Moreover (for the musically-inclined among you), they regularly drop in really unexpected chords, Augmented 7's and madness like that.  I tried to catch some of it in the videos I shot, so hopefully they can give you some sense.  But, just in musical terms, the performance was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen.  I definitely recommend scanning through some of the pictures and--especially--videos of the performance.  It doesn't quite do it justice, but I think you can get a feel for how remarkable it is that they can put this all together.

Perhaps equally impressive is that the groups manage to be funny, even to those of us who don't speak Spanish particularly well.  We saw two groups, both of them incredible and hilarious.  The second one in particular really managed to get its jokes across.  Their theme was "aquello," which roughly translates as "it," but is a general pronoun used to refer to something very far away.  It followed a group of people desperately searching everywhere (including in heaven) for aquello.  This seemed to be a significant part of the plan, as the trip to heaven set up a series of Michael Jackson jokes.  Lewis Black once said that Michael Jackson is a punchline, and you don't even really need a joke before it.  Any set-up will do (e.g. "two Jews walk into a bar." "Michael Jackson.").  This group made excellent use of that strategy.  The premise of that section revolved around Michael Jackson meeting someone in heaven--no one in my group was particularly sure who the other person was, but the logical guess would be a famous Uruguayan who died in the last year.  Although someone else thought it was old Michael Jackson meeting young Michael Jackson.  Hard to say.  At any rate, the jokes were still often clear and the performances (right down to the moonwalk) were excellent.  I also felt a nice little surge of glee when they started singing about Jackson to the tune of "New York, New York:"  "No es de New York.  No es de New York.  Es de Los Angeles...."  The other group focused its theme on "Secretos," including one character's particularly shameful admission that he wasn't planning to vote (voting is mandatory in Uruguay, punishable by a large fine).  So, clearly we managed to get a lot of the jokes that were made.  But even during the parts on which we were less clear, there was so much else to pull you in and invite you to listen.

In addition to the tremendous work that clearly goes into writing, rehearsing, and incorporating the often complicated choreography, the groups had stunning costumes, as you can see from the pictures above.  Both groups that we saw started the performance in one set of costumes, and then changed further along to set up for the big finale.  The finales seem to warrant very flashy costumes, as one group was sequined and rhinestoned to the point of nearly blinding the audience.  The second group elected to go with Sgt Pepper style satin military suits with epaulettes.  The word "finale" isn't really appropriate of course, because the show ends with the entire group continuing to sing their final song as they march off the stage and into the audience, where they walk around singing for another five minutes or so.

Another amazing thing about all of this is that these groups assemble their performances on a very limited budget.  Throughout the year they hold local fundraisers to get the costumes together and cover whatever other incidentals they might need--for example they show up for performances in buses.  Fortunately, the thing that really brings it together, I think, for the performers, is the crowd.  This was a Thursday night, albeit one during the summer, and the show ran from about 8pm to almost 2am.*  And the audience, in spite of all that, was completely into it from start to finish.  They got all the inside jokes we missed, and when each group finished, they went absolutely nuts.  The concession area--where the actors ended up once they stopped singing--was just mobbed with people wanting to talk to the performers, get autographs, take pictures, or just be part of the scene.

These performances take an entire year to put together, and countless hours of writing, creating, and rehearsing.  In the end, there is little reward but the pride in a job well done.  This entire Murga style is clearly a labor of love, brought about by a deep connection between a group of people and the culture that unites them.  Getting to witness it, even as an outsider, was a pretty incredible experience. 

With that, I will bid you goodnight, as it's after 1am here, and I have to get up early tomorrow to catch a bus to Colonia, an adorable historic down a couple hours west of here.  I'll have a post on Colonia in time.  Meanwhile, have a wonderful weekend.


*We arrived late because of the soccer game, and left at 12:30, which is why we only saw two groups perform.

Murga Show

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