It is a powerful instrument, one that commands attention, breeds confidence and stares up emotions in those who witness it being played. Yes, drums come in many shapes and sizes. Real African drums are carved from scratch from a variation of trees to give them a specific tone, sound and personality. No two drums are ever alike.
There is no other country that is living proof of the power of drums than the small country of Burundi. Known for it’s strong drum traditionalism, it has taken it’s pride and talent for the instrument to the international stage. Maybe this is the reason why drums of Burundi have been add to the UNESCO world heritage recently.
The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi have taken their country’s drum centered culture and displayed this to the world with pride and expertise. This percussion ensemble from the tiny country have been performing worldwide since the 1960s. They have also recorded three albums, have appeared on soundtracks in various movies and influenced artists such as Bow wow wow* or Adam and the Ants**. They inspired the creation of the WOMAD festival in 1982. A festival that put world music on the scene. Today they tour the world, performing in the most prestigious auditoriums in front of thousands of people from many cultures. They are living proof that African culture is exportable just as it is !
What do I mean by exportable just as it is ? Too often African culture is exported to the world but undergoes an « adaptation ». Take the fashion industry : African print is in but only when adapted to western patterns, cuts and shapes. We have never witnessed a model walking down the catwalk in a full on traditional African wax print wear, but think about it ; would that not actually work in the fashion world ? I believe many critics would embrace the bold, colorful, confident look of an African bu-bu or a traditional Nigerian head-wrap.
The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi are a breath of fresh air in this sense. They have exported their much loved culture of Burundi drumming intact, to the world with full success.
What is this culture really about you may wonder?
Ancient Burundi drums were more than mere musical instruments. They were sacred objects for the purpose of ceremonial use and were only used in exceptional circumstances and according to specific rituals.
Drum beats basically represented all the major happenings of the country : enthronements, funerals of rulers or celebrating the cycle of seasons. There is also a strong relationship between drums and nature, so much so that the drums announce the beginning of the agricultural year and the sowing of the Soughum seeds to make Soughum beer. The drums are also named after the concept of fertility. For example «Amabere » the pegs means breasts or « Umukondo » the foot of the drum refers to the umbilical cord.
Fact is the drums never lost their symbolic and ritualistic meaning. They remain a significant part of the Burundian culture. The flag of the nation holds a drum at it’s heart: the ancient Karyenda (represented by the circle at the center). It has a semi-divine status for the country. Legend has it that only the « mwami » (ruler) could interpret the messages of Karyenda and turn them into rules governing society. This is why it was chosen as a symbol of the national flag when Burundi emerged from Belgian colonial rule.
The royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi are the very embodiment of the importance of drum culture in Burundi, they powerfully perform the techniques and traditions passed down from father to son for generations. The members of the group take turns playing a central drum, rotating skillfully throughout their breathtaking performances. In their country and on the world stage, They remain true to the specific cultural and symbolic representation of the drum performance.
If there is any way to conclude, it is simply to say that the Royal drummers are an example and inspiration for Africa. They are living proof that African culture can be taken to the world stage intact and still be embraced and highly appreciated without undergoing any form of « adaptation ».
*Bow Wow Wow are an English 1980s New Wave band, created by Malcolm McLaren to promote his and business partner Vivienne Westwood’s New Romantic fashion lines. The group’s music is described as having an “African-derived drum sound”. (wikipedia)
**Adam and the Ants were a British rock band active during the late 1970s and early 1980s. (wikipedia)