The rhythm of Burundi

The rhythm of Burundi

Victoria Theatre hears the sound of Africa

By Nick Schwab

When people think of drummers, they most often think of Neal Peart or John Bonham. But there’s a type of drumming with a different sort of heart and soul, and The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi will show you what it means to pay respect to one’s culture with some rhythm and grace.

The Republic of Burundi is a country that may be unknown to many Daytonians, but that will change when the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi bring their authentic and sacred performance to Dayton in hope of spicing up the flavor of the city. It’s a performance that has been around for many years, and is known in the U.S. for being a part of the 1975 Joni Mitchell album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and even on the Echo and the Bunneymen song “Zimbo.” The performers have even been at the forefront of creating the genre known as “world music” today, and have continued to put on performances with style, grace and passion. It’s also from a culture and a country that many Americans don’t know that much about. Therefore, a brief history and culture lesson seems to be in order …

Burundi is located in Eastern Africa in the middle of Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A very tiny country of just 10,745 square miles, its size is an area that is slightly bigger than Massachusetts and just under the size of Hawaii.

With a population of just slightly over eight and half million, the country is known for being one of the five poorest in the world, with civil wars and corruption abounding. It’s also said to be the “Switzerland of Africa” due to its year-round green scenery and many rolling hills.

The performances reflect the country’s history as well. According to the director of the company, Gabriel Ntagabo, the Burundian drum began with the very first king of Burundi in the 16th century. These performances were a part of important ceremonies within the kingdom, such as births, funerals and the enthronement of the king.

Ntagabo goes on to say that the drums were also beaten in a unique ceremony called Umuganuro in which the king blessed the plants to produce a bountiful harvest. In that way, the drums had a connection with agriculture, which gave it a sense of fertility symbolism.

“The skin was likened to a baby’s cradle, the pegs to the mother’s breast, the drum’s body to the stomach and the base of the drum to the umbilical cord; all elements of women and fertility,” Ntagabo said.

This origin behind the drums has more meanings as well. The drummers said that they were sacrificed for the drums, in a way that meant they must respect and follow the kingdom’s law and customs despite the costs.

He adds that today the drum is considered to be highly respectable and played for ceremonies in which the president of the Republic and other dignitaries are present. This original performance features all rhythms passed down from father to son.

Ray Gargano, the Education and Engagement Director of the Victoria Theatre, says that this performance is very special. “We don’t usually get this opportunity to present African drumming. This is the ‘real deal’, the drummers from (this country) have their own style and culture.”

So just what does this include? That is just what I asked Ntagabo.

Every individual is a drummer, dancer and singer. In most (other) performances, the dancers follow the beat of the drums, but in the case of the Burundi drums, the drummers follow the dancer.”

There will be about 12-14 drummers on stage, as well as a chief, and the drummers are known for carrying the drums on their heads while still playing them, thus making it a sight to see in this 1,100 seat theatre.

It might not be so foreign to all though, as Dayton actually has a community of Burundians. Gargano says he found out that the city is actually home to about 200 Burundi refugees, which can certainly be considered a surprising number of people in this community that come from across the world, and in a country with such a small population.

Gargano is excited about presenting the show to Dayton’s Burundian community, as well as to others in the community. “Part of this is inviting the Burundi youth in Dayton to see some of the traditional drumming and festivities of their culture,” he said.

Since it is the type of original performance that will bring the heart and soul of the country to our fabulous city, and will surely be a sight to see, Gargano concludes about the purpose of this event, “Dayton is such a welcoming community to international guests. This is one of the ways we can reach out internationally and make a connection to other people and cultures.”

Ntagabo agrees with this sentiment, “We are delighted to share it with the people of Dayton.”

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi will be at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., on Thursday, Nov. 1. The show begins at 8 p.m. and tickets range from $16-$39 plus service fees. For more information visit www.victoriatheatre.com. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Nick Schwab at NickSchwab@daytoncitypaper.com

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