La Mancha and La Murga

From Uruguayan street theatre to Brussels musical: murga as an outlet for the people’s grievances

KVS opens its season with a bang this year, programming L’Homme de La Mancha, the hit musical by Wasserman, Leigh and Darion as it was translated and performed by Jacques Brel exactly 50 years ago. But of course we wouldn’t just start the year with a reprise: this production will be far from old-fashioned. A surprising addition to the format is the murga. But what is murga, and why does it fit L’Homme de La Mancha like a glove?

Murga is a form of musical theatre that originated on the streets of Uruguay and Argentina, where it has been a popular form of entertainment, social criticism and resistance for over a century. Originally murgas were considered a lowly form of art, as they developed from a tradition of street vendors loudly selling their wares. 

The genre slowly gained prestige thanks to its strong political undercurrent and socially engaged nature. Murga uses songs and recitals to critically reflect on burning questions. Moreover, murga is true community theatre and strongly involves the audience. Murgas are often performed during carnival, on small community stages in working-class neighbourhoods. 

Mouthpiece for the people

To gain a deeper understanding of murga, we enlisted Eduardo Lombardo, an Uruguayan murga star who is working with the team of L’Homme de La Mancha, and Gerardo Salinas, KVS city dramaturge who previously introduced elements of the murga in Belgium.

“You could call it a mixture of commedia dell’arte, choir singing, opera and musical,” Lombardo explains. “But that still doesn’t capture the essence of murga. The social and political charges are much more important. Murga really is a mouthpiece for the people. The lyricist is meant to soak up the current themes that are important to his community and integrate them. If you go to a murga, you should recognise a lot of what is said.”

Humour is also an essential ingredient. “Irony and sarcasm are used to criticise malpractices, but murgas also laugh at one’s own mediocrity. The closing beat, on the other hand, evokes feelings of nostalgia: after an intense period of symbiosis with the neighbourhood, it waves farewell, with a promise to be back next year,” according to Lombardo.

The local aspect of murga is also important; it’s essentially a form of street theatre. “The creative process often takes place on the street; rehearsals tend to be a real event in the neighbourhood,” explains Salinas. “Imagine KVS organising its rehearsals for a play on a square in the middle of the city.”

Resistance

The critical aspect of murga also makes the art form a tool for resistance against the powers that be. “In Argentina, carnival was banned in the thirties, under the autocratic governments of that time,” Salinas says. “Regimes like that don’t want grievances to just be uttered publicly. In Uruguay carnival wasn’t forbidden, but special commissions were erected to censor murgas.”

Lombardo himself witnessed governments put pressure on murga groups or ban them altogether in his youth. “But murga performers remained critical in roundabout ways: they would use metaphors and allusions to establish their complicity with the audience. That attitude also contributed to the respect murga is now regarded with in most layers of society.”

Roots in Africa

Murgas tend to have a very recognisable structure, largely established by the musicians. Melody and harmonies are provided by a choir. Sometimes vocal or guitar solos are added. Three percussionists – snare drum, bass drum and cymbals – make up the rhythm section. Lombardo attests: “Although the instruments are Western, the rhythms clearly have black roots. Montevideo and Buenos Aires were centres of slave trade once. One of the rhythms of murga is closely related to the candombe, a typical Afro-Uruguayan percussion style that originated in Africa.”

“Those black roots are quite prominent,” says Salinas. “In our L’Homme de La Mancha, the role of Sancho Panza is played by Junior Akwety. After the first murga workshop with Eduardo, he immediately said: This is Congo.”

Lombardo is delighted by the artists he has met in Brussels thanks to L’Homme de La Mancha. “It’s a privilege to work with all these amazing actors, singers and musicians. Art doesn’t just take place on stage, but also around. The human values, and the things you can learn from one another, play a prominent part in murga.”

Lombardo has been fascinated by the cooperative streak of murga since he was a boy. He was originally drawn to the sounds, rhythms and harmonies, but during the military dictatorship of the seventies he was also directly confronted with the aspects of resistance and solidarity. He joined a children’s murga, putting him on the path to a career as one of the most famous murga artists of his home country.

Today Lombardo is primarily a murga composer, but his real strength is uniting wildly different personalities into one solid group. “He is a legend in Uruguay because he is open to new influences, without ever selling the soul of murga,” Salinas muses. Being able to cross the ocean with his beloved art form in order to introduce it into Brussels city theatre is a lovely cherry on top.

La murga and La Mancha

The decision to incorporate murga into L’Homme de La Mancha was no coincidence. The book Don Quixote, which formed the basis for the musical, and murga share roots in folk entertainment. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in the style of the picaresque novel, intending to parody the popular genre. He succeeded with flying colours. After the book sky-rocketed to immense popularity, it became one of Spain’s prime export goods. Murga went through a similar process: originally regarded as lowly entertainment for drunks and outcasts, it has become a prestigious competition sport in Uruguay today, more popular even than football. 

Don Quixote and murga have more in common: their mixture of idealism and criticism, of humour and melancholy is very similar. Cervantes’ masterpiece was a piercing satire of the idealistic and nationalistic tendencies he observed, just like murga is a way to deliver social criticism.

Murga’s arrival in Europe marks an interesting reversal of history. “Cervantes’ Don Quixote was an indirect way to export Spanish culture to Latin America. Today murga is making the opposite journey,” Salinas concludes.