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He Who Strikes the Drum Sets the Pace for the Dancers

by Bidita Debnath on April 4, 2015 at 4:50 PM
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 He Who Strikes the Drum Sets the Pace for the Dancers

Youngsters dance around the circle of 15 thumping 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, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the capital Bujumbura, the drummers perform.


But it is no simple musical show: the ritual dance of the royal drums were last year placed on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list, which describes it as "a spectacle combining powerful, synchronised drumming with dancing, heroic poetry and traditional songs."

It says the "entire population of Burundi recognises it as a fundamental part of its heritage and identity."

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

- Symbol of peace -

"The drum was the symbol of royal power," said 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 country's Kirundi language, the word for drum -- "ingoma" -- is the same as that for kingdom.

Veteran drummer 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 country's main festival, celebrated in December to bless the farms, with preparations beginning months in advance.

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 60 kilometre (40 mile) route from Gishora to the royal capital at Muramvya, celebrating in the villages on the way.

"They gave us food and drink," Baranshakaje said, fondly remembering the parties on the way. "They respected us, the whole country was buzzing."

Once in Muramvya, the drums were silenced until the king blessed crops: then the drum beats broke out with wild banging relayed across the country, the signal for the farmers now to sow the fields.

- Drummer sets the beat -

As such, the drums were a potent symbol of a feudal kingdom at peace and united.

It is a time remembered with nostalgia when people lived peacefully alongside each other - or at least, 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 together the population," Ntabona said. "All the different groups had a role." If the government had "imitated the royal power by bringing in people together," then the bloodshed could have been avoided, he added, mourning 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," said Ntabona, adding that if the drum was seized, it marked the complete fall from power of the king.

According to legend, the appearance of the special drum coincided 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," said 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. Now the drums are commercialised, and people see the drummers as entertainment

"Today at parties people pay to have a drum," said Ntabona. Still, the ancient ways of playing and dancing, handed down from generation to generation, remains the same.

"Many things have changed," admits Baranshakaje. But the drummer, who has performed in over 30 countries, say he has also adapted to more modern times. "He who strikes the drum sets the pace for the dancers," he says, quoting an old proverb.

Source: AFP

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