Live at Real World

The Drummers of Burundi, 2012

Through the darkness a low rumble intensifies from the back of the stage. Gradually a series of swaying figures glide into view, huge drums balanced on their heads, beating out an insistent rhythm. The sheer power of the drumming fills the hall. One by one, the musicians position their drums in a crescent. A larger ceremonial drum, the inkiranya, provides the focal point to which drummers come leaping forward with gymnastic precision, and strike the drum on its skin with deep booming resonance or beat the side with a harsh clacking. The thunderous sound needs no amplification. The extraordinary intensity and vitality of the performance is an emotional experience that few Western audiences will have ever encountered. As the chief drummer comes forward, he calls to the rest of the musicians- they respond with cheers before the rhythm begins again; Oh children who have sacrificed themselves to the drum! Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?

The Drummers of Burundi have performed in this way for centuries and, since the 1960s, for audiences worldwide. In recent years, the 'Burundi beat' has been used (and abused) by various musical entrepreneurs to enhance the rhythm of western pop bands but each time the 'real thing; comes along, it knocks audiences sideways. While the origins of the musical tradition are shrouded in ancient legend and mystery, this is a performance which remains as a fresh and vital cultural statement. The exuberance and creative spirit of a whole nation is expressed through these drums and the rituals surrounding them.

In Burundi the drums are far more than just musical instruments. Sacred objects, once reserved solely for ceremonial use, they have long proclaimed important events (enthronements, births and funerals) and have celebrated the cycle of the seasons, and the planting and harvesting of crops. Through their close links with agriculture the drums have acquired a symbolic association with fertility. The skin is likened to the baby's cradle, the pegs to the mother's breasts, the body of the drum to the stomach and so on.

Drums are also bound to royalty in Burundi- the sacred drums and the king both represent the powers of fertility and regeneration which guarantee the future and prosperity of the kingdom. The word ingoma translates both as 'drum' and 'kingdom'. Even today there remains an ancient network of 'drum sancturies' (the ingoro y' ingoma, or 'palace of the drums') which once existed as the dwelling places of both drums and kings.

The musicians who performed for this recording learned their skills at an early age from their fathers and grandfathers. Their ancestors have always been drummers but, just as today, they were farmers first and foremost, since Burundi is essentially an agricultural nation. Today the performance of the Drummers carries less of the ritual significance of the past but many of the rhythms they play still relate to aspects of their daily existence; some to the planting, harvesting and protection of the sorghum crop, some to familiar birds, and others in praise of the cow, considered sacred in Burundi.

This recording is actually made up of forty-one different rhythms, each representing an important concept to the people of Burundi. Sometimes the drums call them to appreciate important figures- the chief drummer, the eldest drummer or the most prestigious person present; while others encourage peace, mutual respect or unity, or the progress of their country.

Some rhythms relate specifically to the life of the drums and the drummers. The long journey to the special place where the drums are made and the triumphant return to the village are remembered. Others celebrate the musicians' involvement with the instruments; the sacrifices they make to the drums and the skills, physical strength and speed they must command as drummers.

For the Drummers of Burundi percussion and dance are inseparable. With jerky movements, sudden and fantastic leaps, they often seem to be bordering on trance. The performance is a mixture of almost religious gravity and unrestrained comedy. In rapid sequence war-like stamping or throat-slitting gestures of sacrifice to the drums will suddenly change into caricatures of animals.

Many of the forty-one rhythms on this recording are specially related to the exhibition of talent - suppleness, acrobatic agility and precision. Beyond its function at the centre of day- to- day ritual, the drum has always been prized for the entertainment and sheer happiness it brings. At the end of the piece the drummers duck down behind their instruments so that, for the audience, only the drums are visible- the source of all the magic that has just unfolded before them.

Reviews

  • Play it loud preferably through the sound system this record deserves... ...and embrace what you share with every human on the planet - a pulse, a sense of rhythm and subconscious attraction to the sound of certain words. Think Africa Press (UK)
  • ...best taken neat, without mixers or chasers. Q Magazine (1992) (UK)
  • ...this is pretty hypnotic stuff... The album succeeds in capturing the aural vitality and excitement of the performance... Folk Roots (1992) (UK)