The Royal Drummers of Burundi are a percussion ensemble from the tiny country of Burundi in Central Africa. They bring a rhythm, dance and performance that is unparalleled – ancient and compelling, rooted in a tradition of mystical belief, and as electrifyingly modern as any contemporary beat.
Their performances form part of many social ceremonies in Burundi, including births, funerals, and coronations of mwami (Kings). Timeless and ageless, the rhythm of Burundi is a truly powerful, hypnotic and enthralling experience.
The performance of the Royal Drummers has remained powerful for centuries, the techniques and traditions passed down from father to son. The members of the ensemble take turns playing a central drum, called the Inkiranya, dancing, resting, and playing the other drums, rotating throughout the performance without interruption.
In addition to the Inkiranya, there are Amashako drums that provide a continuous beat, and Ibishikiso drums, that follow the rhythm established by the Inkiranya.
At the start of their performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads and singing and playing. There are some extra members who carry ornamental spears and shields and lead the procession with their dance. They then perform a series of rhythms, some accompanied by song, and exit the stage in similar fashion, carrying the drums on their heads and playing.
Ever since their first visit to this country twenty six years ago, the Drummers of Burundi have been a thing of legend; their name equivalent to an idea of true energy and joyful power.
The group at Heavenly Planet will be fourteen-strong, men of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes who have grown with this music and dance since childhood.
Burundi, the country they come from, is one of the smallest in Central Africa and the tradition of drumming there comes from an ancient royal heritage. For centuries, the monarch’s rule and the people’s harvest have been accompanied by the thunderous and celebratory procession of the Country’s drummers and dancers.
The drums themselves (called karyenda) are sacred, representing fertility and regeneration. The drums are made from hollowed tree trunks covered with animal skins and the wood is rough-hewn from the trunk and branch of the d’umuvugangoma tree (‘the tree that makes the drum speak’). The drums themselves can be stored for up to sixty years in drum sanctuaries.
Burundi – The Drums
The drum plays a traditionally important role in Burundi, and to the people it evokes the religious and mystical foundations on which their old society was built.
In ancient Burundi the drums were far more than musical instruments. They were sacred objects reserved for ceremonial use, and were only used in exceptional circumstances and always according to specific rituals.
Their beat proclaimed the major events of the country – enthronements and funerals of rulers, for example – as well as celebrating the regular cycle of the seasons. The drums would signal the beginning of the agricultural year and the sowing of the Soughum seeds that go to make Soughum beer.
The relationship in Burundi between drum and nature is so strong that various parts of the drum are named after the concept of fertility:
Icahi – The Skin (Skin in which the mother rocks her baby)
Amabere – The Pegs (The Breasts)
Urugori – The Thong Stretching the Skin (Crown of Motherhood)
Inda – The Cylinder (The Stomach)
Umukondo – Foot of the Drum (The Umbilical Cord)
The drums have lost none of their revered significance over the centuries. An ancient network of drum sanctuaries still exists in Burundi where the drums have been stored over the years until such time as they are brought out to be played. These sanctuaries are in places of importance, such as royal residences ruled over by a queen, sacred groves, or in forests marking the tombs of kings or princes. Known as ingoro y’ ingoma (the palace of the drums) these sanctuaries were the specific domains of family lineages who alone had the privilege of making, beating and keeping the the drums and had, as a sacred calling, the task of bringing a certain number of drums to each Soughum feast. In the sanctuaries the main drum (the Inkiranya) is laid on a trestle of branches and surrounded, as though a king, by subsidiary drums (the Ingendanyi).
The Ngoma drums that the Drummers of Burundi play are hollowed out from the trunk of a particular tree called D’umuvugangoma (Corda Africana) meaning ‘the tree that makes the drums speak’. At the beginning of the twentieth century these trees were already becoming rare and the men of the tribe had to travel far to find them. Each year they went in search of a tree from which four or five drums could be made. The chosen tree was marked and and the felling of it preceded by a ceremony with the drummers circling the tree beating the drums borne on their heads. The chief then sprayed the tree with a compound of herbs in order to chase away the python who was said to live in its foliage. To the salute of the drums the tree would then be felled with an axe, then measured and cut up. The individual parts are hollowed out and the insides and outsides polished. The bottom of the drum is shaped with an implement called an imbazo and a band is marked with a hot iron around the base as usually the only decoration.
Then comes the skin, made from dried and stretched cow-hide, which is pegged around the open end of the cylinder, and stretched to its maximum.
The Republic of Burundi is in East-Central Africa, with Lake Tanganyika running along its western and south-western borders. Burundi is land-locked but the lake offers a water route to other countries; thus, Bujumbura, the capital city, is an important port.
There are three languages spoken, Kirundi being the national language, French the post-colonial diplomatic language and Swahili also often used for commercial transactions.
The two predominant tribal groupings are the Tutsi and the Hutu. Historically, the Tutsi have always exerted a feudal, master-servant relationship over the Hutu and this continues to be the pattern in modern day Burundi, with the Tutsi occupying the majority of Government posts and the Hutu making up 85% of the mostly farming population. The renowned drummers come from the Hutu tribe.
Burundi was one of the last areas of the African continent to be penetrated by colonial Europeans. In 1885 at the Conference of Berlin the major European powers partitioned off the territory as an area of German influence.
In 1918, post-war settlements resulted in the former territory of Ruanda-Urundi becoming a League of Nations mandate to be administered by Belgium. Later the territory became a United Nations trusteeship after the Second World War, again under the Belgians, who regarded it as an annexe of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire). In 1962 the land beacame independent both as a monarchy and as two nation states, equal in size, Burundi and Rwanda.
Burundi was proclaimed a Republic on November 28 1966.
The national economy of this 4.5 peopled country is based upon subsistence agriculture and 90% of the active population are involved in farming of some sort. The main exports are coffee and cotton. Most of the coffee goes to America while cotton is purchased by textile manufacturers in Belgium and Luxembourg. The country depends upon significant foreign aid with Belgium as the prime donor.