In Burundi, the drum is a revered symbol of unity. But only men can play.

GITEGA, Burundi — An ensemble of about 30 men, swinging heavy instruments over their heads, marched in solemn procession toward a field ...


GITEGA, Burundi — An ensemble of about 30 men, swinging heavy instruments over their heads, marched in solemn procession toward a field of red earth, where silence would soon be replaced by sound essential to Burundi’s cultural identity : the drum.

Led by an older man carrying a spear and shield, the group formed a crescent, put down their drums and began to play for the gathered tourists, the thundering music echoing from a hill several miles from the Burundian capital, Gitega.

“Percussion in Burundi is a matter of history,” said Oscar Nshimirimana, Chief Performer, Royal Drummers of Burundi. “It’s a question of power. It’s a matter of freedom.”

But in Burundi, where the instrument has long featured prominently in politics, culture and the economy, not everyone is free to play the drums.

In 2017, then Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza signed a decree which prohibited women from playing the traditional synchronized drums often accompanied by ritual dances, songs or poetry. Women are only allowed to perform the ritual dances.

Also part of the new rules: drumming was mostly restricted to official ceremonies. Organizers of private events who wished to have traditional drums played had to obtain permission from a government minister and pay a fee for the privilege. Anyone accused of breaking the rules faces up to $500 in fines, in one of the world’s poorest countries, where GDP per capita was $239 in 2020, according to the World Bank.

Five years later, the measures are still in place.

Louis Kamwenubusa, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of East African Community Affairs, Youth, Sports and Culture in Burundi, recently defended the laws as “preserving and protecting” Burundian culture.

Mr Kamwenubusa argued that women had not been performers of royal drums for centuries, so allowing them to play would go against long-respected practices. The female thresher ban was consistent with this, he said.

The restrictions have been denounced as a further indication of how Mr. Nkurunziza, who passed away in June 2020and his chosen successor, President Evariste Ndayishimiye, aimed to maintain strict control over Burundian society. Human rights groups have accused both civil liberties and press repression administrations, torturing and killing opponents, and using national intelligence services and pro-government youth militias to monitor citizens’ actions.

For women like Emilie Nkengurutse, who once belonged to a women’s drumming group in Bujumbura, the country’s largest city, the restrictions have meant the loss of both an important source of income and a lifelong passion. a life.

“I miss beating the drum,” said Ms Nkengurutse, who now only earns a living from the vegetables she sells. “I often go to see shows and sometimes I want to pick up the drumsticks and play, but I can’t.”

In Burundi, a landlocked country of 11 million people, the importance of the drum is hard to overestimate.

In the local Kirundi language, “ingoma” means both “drum” and “kingdom” – signifying its centrality to prestige and power.

In Burundi, traditional drums – long hollowed-out wooden trunks wrapped in cowhide and fixed with wooden pegs – are usually made from Cordia africana, a flowering tree sometimes called Sudan teak. In the local language, the tree is known as “umuvugangoma”, which translates to “the tree that makes the drum speak”.

Historically, the drum served as a tool for communicating over a distance. It was also deployed during the enthronement of members of the royal family, as well as their funerals. And it was used as the equivalent of a battle flag, the capture of which by an opposing force meant defeat.

Burundian drummers established themselves outside the country’s borders after independence, starred by stars like Joni Mitchell, who used a battery recording in his 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”.

Today, the drums still favor the community. The Burundian drum is usually present at a wide variety of events, including weddings, baptisms, fairs and graduation ceremonies.

In 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the ritual performance of the royal drums to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, call him a “means of bringing people of different generations and backgrounds together, thus promoting unity and social cohesion”.

But while the drum has been hailed as a unifying tool, government restrictions have also made it a tool of division, between men and women, and between those who can afford government fees and those who cannot.

“It’s a shock to me,” said Annie Irankunda, a Burundian-American drummer whose percussion group was cast in the superhero movie “Black Panther.” When the film was screened on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, Burundi’s largest city, she said she could not drum with the local all-male troupe invited to perform.

Of all the drum’s ceremonial functions, one of the most important was the role it played in marking the annual cropping season, when the king urged his people to pick up their hoes and begin ploughing. On the day of the ceremony, two large drums – known as Ruciteme, meaning “one for whom we clear the forest” and Murimirwa, meaning “one for whom we cultivate” – would be struck in a sacred rite.

These two drums, around 119 years old, are still at the Gishora drum sanctuary, outside Gitega, where Mr. Nshimirimana and his troupe perform.

Now a major tourist attraction due to the drumming shows, the site was created by King Mwezi Gisabo, the last independent ruler of Burundi before the start of German colonial rule in the late 19th century.

Burundi became a Belgian colony after World War I, with the drum continuing to play a vital role after independence in 1962. A drum, along with a sorghum plant, featured on the country’s first post-independence flag.

But in Burundi 2022, Mr Nshimirimana said he was keen to nurture the next generation of drummers and convey an appreciation for the instrument’s vital place in Burundian culture and history.

Among the short-term challenges are not only government restrictions, but also pandemic-related travel limitations, which have drastically reduced tourism to the sanctuary. In an effort to boost tourism, Burundi recently began allowing all foreign nationals to obtain visas on arrival.

“We have been here for centuries,” Mr. Nshimirimana said one afternoon, donning robes in the red, green and white of the Burundi flag. “And hopefully we’ll be there for many more.”

Hussein Butoyi contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Burundi, the drum is a revered symbol of unity. But only men can play.
In Burundi, the drum is a revered symbol of unity. But only men can play.
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