Qué quilombo – if you’ve been in Argentina long enough, chances are you’ve heard this phrase used by many a frustrated local. The subte is packed to overflowing? Qué quilombo. Can’t cut across the Plaza de Mayo because of another protest? Qué quilombo. Translated loosely as “what a mess” and formerly used pejoratively to mean “brothel” in lunfardo, it’s not likely to be found in any conventional Spanish phrase book. Not surprising, considering it isn’t even Spanish, but rather Kimbundu, one of the most widely spoken languages in Angola.
How did this southern African word makes its way to the shores of the Rio de la Plata? Historically, quilombos were settlements of escaped slaves deep in the Brazilian backcountry, centers of resistance where Africans and Afro-descendants asserted their freedom and practiced their culture. They often grew to include indigenous people and marginalised Europeans, becoming in the process diverse communities united by the common struggle against repression. Movimiento Afrocultural, which bills itself as “the last urban quilombo”, is carrying on this tradition of struggle, tolerance, and cultural awareness in the heart of Montserrat.
The cultural centre is easy to miss as it sits far-removed from the street, surrounded by a high fence. As you walk past, however, it is impossible not to hear the deep, syncopated rhythms of dozens of drums playing in unison, or the traditional songs being sung, sometimes in Spanish, other times in Portuguese or Kimbundu. Many people who regularly attend the centre’s workshops discovered it this way, lured by the llamador, or call of the drums.
Step inside and one of the Movimiento Afrocultural’s volunteers will happily show you around, explaining the purpose of the centre and elaborating on the history of the Afro-Argentine community – a group often overlooked in a country typically thought to be more European than anything else. The walls hang with candombe drums, afro-centric artwork, traditional clothing and scenes from past capoeira tournaments. As a museum the centre is interesting, however Movimiento Afrocultural’s real strength lies in the many workshops offered each week, ranging from candombe drumming and history, to tango, samba, and even guitar classes.
The capoeira workshop – an Afro-Brazilian martial art disguised by slaves to look like dancing – is offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights at 7pm, and is as intense a workout as you’re likely to find anywhere in the city. Class begins with stretching, jogging, and repeated practice of the art’s most basic moves and sequences – all to the hypnotic strains of the berimbau, a single-stringed instrument integral to the sport (played live if you’re lucky, recorded if not). Students then break into pairs to practise, with instructors offering guidance and constructive criticism.
If you’re an absolute beginner (sore, red in the face and wheezing, as I was), one of the more advanced students may be assigned to teach you the basics – elegant and difficult moves with names like gallina (chicken) and cocorinha (little coconut). Class ends with communal singing in which everyone is expected to participate – it’s easy, amidst the drums, berimbaus, and tambourines, to imagine you’ve been transported to Brazil or Angola. Classes cost $25 each, or $200 per month. Wear loose trousers (shorts are considered inappropriate) and comfortable trainers, and be prepared to ache for a few days afterwards.
The ‘Bodily Expression: Intro to Candombe’ dance class, offered every Thursday at 7pm, is a bit more accessible and much less demanding than the capoeira workshops. This lighthearted workout occurs at the same time as the drumming class, so all the stretching, gyrating, shoulder-rolling and hip-swaying is provided with a complimentary soundtrack by up to 50 energetic drummers. By the end of the class I was limber, relaxed, and more aware than ever of just how bad my posture is. A contribution of $20 is suggested, but not mandatory.
A decent knowledge of Spanish will help you make the most of your visit to the Movimiento Afrocultural, however it is easy enough to follow along visually. Professors are understanding and constantly remind us that “there are no foreigners, only people.” This inclusivity is the centre’s most endearing trait, and calls to mind the same compassion that sustained the quilombos so many years ago.
“We have a culture here that we call ‘quilombola’”, says Sandra Chagas, the Movimiento’s director of institutional relations. “It’s made of indigenous people, whites, blacks, all together in the same place.” Qué quilombo, indeed.
Movimiento Afrocultural is open seven days a week, at Defensa 535. Workshops are free for people of indigenous or African descent. For all others, a contribution is suggested, but not required; classes are open to all, regardless of ability to pay. The centre also accepts donations of clothing and shoes.
List of workshops:
Capoeira Angola: Mon/Wed/Fri 7pm
Singing and Vocal Expression: Sat 6-7.30pm
Guitar: Tue 6.30pm
Candombe school: Thu 7pm
Bodily Expression: Intro to Candombe: Thu 7pm
Candombe History and Fundamental: Sat 4pm
Samba: Wed 5-6.30pm
Tango: Sun 6-7pm, 7-9pm
Candombe Dance: Sun 4.30-5.45pm, 6pm