In Burundi, playing the drums is a symbol of recognition, and the Royal Drummers of Burundi vividly represent it.
Experiencing the Royal Drummers of Burundi for the very first time is witnessing raw energy in front of your eyes. Thirty performers beat giant hundred-kilo drums with such strength and passion that your heart beats with the rhythm of the drums, and you feel the need to jump, scream, and be part of this fabulous atmosphere. You can see how each performer takes turns and comes forward to jump, spin, or backflip. It is fascinating to see firsthand how the drum beat captivates every audience member and how the drummers are always in perfect control of the instrument.
This is by far the best percussion performance I’ve seen in my life, so I was not surprised to find out that the ritual dance of the royal drum was added to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It is a fascinating act, and Burundians are incredibly proud of it.
For those looking to see the Royal Drummers of Burundi in their full glory, Gishora, a small hilltop village 100km away from Bujumbura, is the place to go. This is where they have been performing for generations and where the history of the Burundian drum began.
The unclear history of the Royal Drummers
Although drum performances in Burundi have been happening for centuries, there needs to be more documentation about their origins. Some sources track it down to the 17th century, while others mention it by the beginning of colonization. One thing is for sure, the construction of the drums and the traditions have been kept the same, and since then, they have been passed down from generation to generation.
At the same time, Burundians are not much interested in the origins but more in its legacy. The Burundian drummers are the country’s most significant representation of culture, and since Burundi’s independence from Belgium in 1962, the drum has become a more significant cultural protagonist.
The power of the Burundian drums was part of Joni Mitchell’s song “the jungle line,” while other western artists like The Clash have found some inspiration in the beats too. You can also see performances of the Royal Drummers of Burundi in other parts of the world, and the blockbuster hit Black Panther featured some of its sounds in certain scenes where the beat of the drum plays an essential role in the atmosphere of the characters.
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Cultural protection through restriction
Burundians from all social statuses and backgrounds love the drum and understand its importance from a cultural perspective. They want this tradition to live forever. However, since the performance of the Royal Drummers of Burundi became part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2014, new regulations established by the Government are indiscreetly causing restrictions and discrimination towards the issues they are meant to protect.
UNESCO said the Burundian drum brings people of diverse generations and origins together, encouraging unity and social cohesion. Unfortunately, in 2017 a decree was passed banning women from performing drumming. Most of the Burundians I talked to mentioned that the drums represent a woman; therefore, only a man should be allowed to touch them. However, this discriminatory excuse contradicts why the Burundian drum became such an important cultural symbol worldwide.
Drum performer Annie Irankunda, who was cast to perform the drums for the movie Black Panther, was not allowed to play the drums during the premiere in Bujumbura. Instead, an all-male group was invited to play.
Additionally, Burundian drummers have to register with the authorities to play the Burundian drum, and with fees going up to 250 USD, the people who have kept this tradition alive for centuries can’t barely afford now to play it. According to NYT, “the drum has been praised as a unifying tool; the government’s restrictions have also made it a divisive one.”
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I loved seeing the Royal Drummers of Burundi play in Gishora. It was one of my best experiences in Africa, and I will remember it forever. At the same time, I would have also loved to see street performers showing their skills and love for the drum or women taking the lead – all how it used to be.
These restrictions today are only limiting culture to persevere. Unfortunately, under these regulations restricting who can perform the drums in Burundi and who can’t, it’s just a matter of time until Burundians lose interest and these traditions disappear.
NOTE: Travelers can schedule visits to the Royal Drummers of Burundi and see their performance starting at 100 USD. These visits can be planned by any tour operator or the local tourism authority.
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