Drums of Burundi: ancient heartbeat loses its rhythm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
AFP

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With wild dancing to a furious beat, booming wooden drums echo over a hill in Burundi - an ancient sound, a sacred tradition and once a symbol of unity for the kingdom.

Youngsters dance around the circle of 15 drummers led by 79-year-old Antime Baranshakaje, still sprightly and waving spear and shield, himself the former drummer of the last king of this small central African nation.

Here on a hilltop in Gishora, about 100km east of the capital, Bujumbura, the drummers perform. It is an impressive show; so much so that the ritual dance of the royal drums was placed on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list last year. "The entire population of Burundi recognises it as a fundamental part of its heritage and identity," the UN body said.

Today the drums are played for entertainment, but for centuries they were a sacred rite - a powerful memory for a country whose recent history has been scarred by decades of civil war and bloodshed.

"The drum was the symbol of royal power," says Father Adrien Ntabona, a Catholic abbot and anthropologist. "It was no little thing, nor as commonplace as it is today … For God came through the drum to protect the monarchy and the kingdom, the whole country."

Indeed, in the Kirundi language, the word for drum - ingoma - is the same as that for kingdom.

Baranshakaje was one of the last to have played for the ancient spring festival of the sowing of the crops before Burundi became a republic in 1966, after independence from Belgium four years earlier. It was the nation's main festival, celebrated in December to bless the farms.

The giant wood drums were carved in August as well as the animal hides prepared to make their skins, with the drummers and their instruments then marching the winding 60km route from Gishora to the royal capital at Muramvya, celebrating in the villages on the way. "They respected us … the whole country was buzzing," Baranshakaje says.

Once in Muramvya, the drums were silenced until the king blessed the crops. Then the drumbeats broke out, with wild banging relayed across the country - the signal for the farmers to sow the fields.

As such, the drums were a potent symbol of a feudal kingdom at peace. It's a time remembered with nostalgia when people lived peacefully alongside one another - a time that was a far cry from the divisions, bitterness and then massacres that would later emerge between the Hutu and Tutsi groups.

As the country gears up for tense presidential elections in June, memories of the role the drums played offer a potent memory. "The royalty had an extraordinary ability to bring the population together," Ntabona says.

If the government had "imitated the royal power by bringing people together", then the bloodshed could have been avoided, he adds, bemoaning the "one-party system" that took power after independence.

As a symbol of royal power, almost like a crown and sceptre for other monarchs, one special drum called the "karyenda" was kept hidden in the palace, played only for the king at special ceremonies.

"This drum symbolised the stability of the kingdom," says Ntabona, adding that if the drum was seized, it marked the king's complete fall from power.

According to legend, the special drum appeared with the birth of Burundi's monarchy centuries ago. But the power of the drums was chipped away under Belgian rule, especially with missionaries who sought to replace the power of the king with "the King of Kings, Jesus Christ", says Ntabona.

Drums were instead used to herald the start of church services and school. The instrument's power waned further after Burundi's last king, Ntare the Fifth, was forced to flee into exile in 1966.

"Today at parties people pay to have a drum," says Ntabona.

Still, the ancient ways of playing and dancing, handed down from generation to generation, remains the same. "Many things have changed," Baranshakaje says. But the drummer, who has performed in more than 30 countries, quotes an old proverb: "He who strikes the drum sets the pace for the dancers."

Agence France-Presse