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Dayton’s Burundi Royal Court Drummers

By Tammy Newsom

Photo: The Burundi Royal Court Drummers have performed traditional and improvisational acrobatic drumming in Dayton for five years; photo: Bill Franz

Burundi now has a golden crown.

As a tiny Central African nation bordering Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi has been plagued by the same strife and decades of civil war and ethnic slaughter that overtook Rwanda. The second conflict, lasting 12 years, escalated in 1993 after the first Hutu president, Malchior Ndadye, was elected. The president’s plane, carrying himself and the Rwandan president, was shot down in protest. Like Rwanda, Burundi suffered crushing human casualties during the brutality that ensued. As it exists today, half the population of Burundi falls below the poverty line. Many of them had to face genocide and were forced to flee to live in refugee camps in Tanzania.

The Burundi Royal Court Drummers originated in Dayton, Ohio, five years ago. Its members are Burundi immigrants. Taken from the Burundi Royal Court Drummers of the 16th century, whose members were permitted to perform only for the king as a part of selective ceremony, the drummers combine a graceful form of traditional African drumming with modern dance, and enviable athleticism. Players begin several years’ preparation, from age 12-15, to build the necessary upper body strength to carry and to perform with these instruments.

Like their ancestors, the drummers who enter the arena will play the instruments while carrying the drums on their heads. The drums weigh 120 pounds, or more, each, and the players will remain in this formation for up to 15 minutes. Once the drums are carried in, they are usually placed on the ground to finish out the performance.

“Some of the movements are improvised during the performance where one player will improvise a dance movement or a drum beat and become the focus of attention,” Floyd Thomas, Curator Emeritus of the National African American Museum and Culture Center, explained. “Then, individually, one by one, everyone in the group will perform. The coordination between the drum and the movement is extraordinary.”

Using the drumsticks, the drummers will each take turns tracing a hangman’s noose around his own neck. Dieudonne Nsabiamana, drummer and president of the Burundian Cultural and Education Association, said this gesture was a vow to the king and is still incorporated into modern performances. “It is to say the drummer would rather die than betray the king,” he said.

Painted on the center of the lead drum is the Burundi flag, bearing three stars that represent unity, work and progress. The drummers’ uniforms match the Burundian flag colors: red, green, white – symbolizing courage, hope and peace, respectively.

The drummers are responsible for the care and maintenance of their own instruments. Replacement drum skins are ordered from Burundi and once they arrive, are soaked in water for 24 hours before being fastened to the basin with wooden pegs. Nsabiamana explained the drum skins are made of cow leather from female Burundi cows; any variation would produce a lesser sound. The drum bowls and pegs are carved from the wood of a special tree in Burundi called an umuvugangoma.

Driven from their country

Most of the drummers have lost family or friends in the fighting, and have spent more time in refugee camps than they have in their home country. The youngest member of the group is 12 and has not seen Burundi since age five. Yet, their talent is unequaled. Some of the more experienced drummers have performed in international venues in South Africa and in Korea and at a presidential inauguration.

“The drummers are national treasures,” Thomas said. “Fear of reprisal in their home country led them to seek refuge here.”

One drummer, Ramadhan Ndayisaba first got involved with the Royal Court Drummers, as a Belmont High School student, when a friend introduced him. He was on the football team, the track team and the wrestling team, and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. Like Ndayisaba, the group is hoping to make Dayton home. Together, they have formed a Burundi soccer team to participate in the World Soccer Games, held in Dayton every year. The drummers are multilingual, speaking native Kirundi, as well as Swahili, French and English.

“I started playing the drums here, but I saw them perform in Tanzania,” said Drummer Angelo Ndayihaya, who emigrated last May. “Before that, I wasn’t able to focus in school.”

“We are always looking for opportunities to share culture and excitement of the drums,” added Ndayisaba.

The drummers have performed at the World A’ffair, to a standing ovation; at Lincoln Park; at Refugee Recognition Day; and at the National African American Culture Center (NAACC).

Future events, dates and times will be posted as they are made available through the NAACC, located at 1350 Brush Row Road, in Wilberforce, Ohio.

For more information, please call 937.376.4944 or visit ohiohistory.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Tammy Newsom at TammyNewsom@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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