At 5:30 p.m., the square in front of the Rohero courthouse comes alive. In the heart of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, Tuesdays are transformed into a celebration of tradition. As they do every week, the drummers take out their instruments to begin the ritual rehearsals. As soon as the first beats are heard, a crowd gathers, attracted by the spectacle of the ritual dance. Passers-by, on their way home from work, stop to soak up the vibrant atmosphere for a few moments.
This scene is not unique to Rohero. Throughout Bujumbura, the same sound of drums echoes, forging a common bond among residents. Despite their familiarity with the ritual, the townspeople remain fascinated by the power of the drum. Wilfried Vyamungu, a local resident, shares his feelings: “Every time I hear the drum, it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time.”
This ritual, which reflects the soul of Burundi, can be found throughout the country, uniting its inhabitants in a celebration of their cultural heritage.
Where it all began
The ritual originated in the province of Gitega in central Burundi. We travelled about 65 km east of Bujumbura to the town of Gitega, where we quickly discovered why it is nicknamed the “Drum Province.” On the town’s main square stands a statue of a drummer, a living symbol of this tradition.
Our guide through this musical universe is Oscar Nshimirimana, keeper of the drum sanctuary at Gishora, which is 10 km away from Gitega. He also represents all the drum clubs in the country. Having just returned from Dubai, where he led the Gishora drummers in a cultural exhibition, Nshimirimana tells us about the history and significance of the royal drum. This symbol, rooted in the time of the kings, was at the centre of ceremonies and festivals, notably the Umuganuro, a celebration of the redistribution of goods and the reaffirmation of loyalty to the king. For eight days, the sound of the drum was uninterrupted.
For Nshimirimana, the royal drum was not just an instrument, but a pillar of royal power. “Without the royal drum, the concept of a king was unthinkable,” he said emphatically. As they play, the drummers tell the story of Burundi’s history, values and culture. They evoke bravery in war, social solidarity, courage, morals and everyday traditions.
Every beat of the drum is a living reminder of Burundi’s traditions, encouraging new generations to preserve this precious heritage.
During his travels with Gishora’s famous drumming team, Nshimirimana has noticed an increasing interest in this traditional instrument. “It is amazing to see the level of appreciation that our drum is getting in other countries,” he said.
“The response we get from our international audience is even greater than the one we get in Burundi,” he added. The drums’ power and authenticity often leave audiences spellbound, fascinated by their rich, natural sound. The sound quality of the opulent drums, made from local woods and covered in cowhide, without electronic amplification, is always impressive.
Sounding the alarm
Nshimirimana emphasises the importance of Burundian youth maintaining a strong attachment to their cultural heritage. “I implore our young generations to value our practices, our traditions, and our peculiar culture,” he declared. He voiced his worry regarding the increasing adoption of external customs among the youth, cautioning that drifting away from Burundian traditions may erode the national identity. “If we discard our defining characteristics as Burundians and adopt foreign influences, we risk losing our core essence. It is essential to sustain our culture, particularly through the drum, to uphold our pride and sense of self.”
Additionally, Nshimirimana voiced concern regarding the improper utilisation of the royal drum outside of the country. He gave examples where the national flag on the principal drum has been substituted with the flag of a different country, which he deems unsuitable. “It’s a serious mistake to replace our national flag. The drum is a crucial part of Burundi’s heritage and ought to be respected and preserved in its entirety,” he said. While he acknowledged the significance of disseminating Burundian culture abroad, he emphasised that this should not be carried out in a way that modifies the authenticity of the drum.
He stressed the importance of maintaining the traditional dress of the drummers, known as “batimbo,” and ensuring that their performances truly reflect Burundian culture. These components are crucial in preserving Burundi’s cultural identity worldwide.
The Evolution of Burundi’s Royal Drum
Burundi’s royal drum, an age-old emblem dating back to the 17th century, symbolises the significance and longevity of the monarchy in Burundian society. Previously, this musical tradition was pivotal to important occasions, including the coronation of kings and the funerals of esteemed figures. The drummers’ movements, representing bravery and valour, played a central role in these ceremonies.
As time passed, the function of the royal drum changed. Today, the beat of drumming enlivens important national festivals such as the Independence Day and other significant commemorations. Furthermore, the drum’s contents have expanded from conveying monarchical messages to encompassing political, social, and cultural themes. At present, the practice of drumming is regulated and it is no longer allowed to be freely incorporated into weddings or other ceremonies without prior authorisation.
On the 6 June 2017, a presidential decree designated a week devoted to the drum dance, referred to as “Umurisho w’ingoma.” This specific week is celebrated annually starting 26 November, under the banner of peace, reconciliation, and national unity. Throughout this period, drum festivals are held across Burundi to honour this ancient art and the skilful drummers who master it.
The decree highlights the significance of this week as a pivotal moment in Burundi’s cultural autonomy. For 2023, a fresh instalment of this celebration is slated to occur on 26 November, as per the details provided by the country’s cultural authority.
African Times has published the article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine.