Burundi: When drumming becomes political

21 November 2017
Controversial new law bans women from traditional drumming and regulates the formation of drumming groups, as well as where and when they can perform.
Photo: Traditional Burundian drummers perform at a public event in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura/Wikicommons


By John Banram, Freemuse correspondent – reporting from Burundi

On 20 October 2017, the President of the Central African Republic of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed an act that would deal with the legal regulation of … playing drums. From Senegal to Madagascar, all over the African continent, drums have been the centrepiece of cultural expressions, but from now, not everyone is allowed to perform these ancient musical traditions in Burundi anymore. What’s behind all this?

Since February this year, discussions have been ongoing between drummers and the ministry in charge of culture to insure better protection of the intellectual rights of Burundian drummers.

Rumours were already circulating for a while that the practice of drumming, called “les tambourinaires”, would be susceptible to changes. This ancient cultural tradition has been known in the country for a few hundred years as it dates back to the ancient kingdom of the Burundi people. In those days, a group of male drummers combined their music performances for the royal court mostly with dances, which were largely performed by women. The combination of these two artistic expressions was meant to reflect the bravery of the people.

“The Intore dance, for instance, was performed by male hunters when they captured some wild game, or when they returned successfully from wars”, said a member of the Intamba group.

In April 2017, the famous chief of the Burundian tambourinaires, Antime Baranshakaje, died after a long disease at the age of 71. He explained in an interview before his death “that the drummers were involved in accompanying the first king of Burundi, when he was identified in the region around a place called Buga. From there on, the drummers were asked to announce the arrival of this new king to the population”. To do this “they took the skin of an animal and placed it over a trunk that was infested by termites and then started to beat it”. The legend goes that a snake was still inside the drum and started to beat the leather skin rhythmically, creating the idea of selected rhythms to the Burundian tambourinaires.

Controversial new law
For most people it was strange to see this cultural tradition suddenly becoming the origin of a new “décret” (decree), signed by the President of the Republic. The main reason for the upheaval is that the recent law specifies some limitations on who is allowed to play these drums, and under what circumstances they are allowed to be beaten. It also details that women are not allowed to perform drum beatings, though they are allowed to accompany the music with traditional dances.

Since its publication in the beginning of November 2017, this law has become the talk of the town. People directly involved even call it controversial.

Several drum bands in Burundi consider this as a way for the government to limit their cultural expressions and freedom.

Alphonsine Irakoze, president of a female drumming band, said “our women drummers are all unemployed now. These days it is very difficult to find enough food or a decent lodging for our girls”.

And what’s even more, by regulating that “women are strictly forbidden to beat the drum”, Burundi seems to contradict its own constitution that enables everyone to have the same (cultural) rights; especially articles 13 and 22, which provide equal rights to men and women.

Protecting tradition
A story of drumming that is so intertwined with the local culture and heritage seems to be in need of protection, which is probably the main origin of this new law.

“Long after the kingdom of Burundi was abolished, the drums were still beaten, but now for official diplomatic occasions, for instance when other heads of state visited the country”, said Jacques Mapfarakora, the conservator of the national museum in Gitega in a recent documentary. “But, this doesn’t mean that they beat the drum for everyone. There are special moments and special persons that create an occasion to play.”

Is it this ancient habit that has driven the current government to regulate the musical performances in and out of the country?

Some members of drumming bands disagree: “Before there was an agreement between the organiser of a party and us to arrange a concert, now the ministry has to approve”. They see this as a way for the ministry to bestow privilege to some of the actual drumming bands.

The fact that UNESCO has recently added these tambourinaires to their long list of world heritage has probably sensitized the government to enact better regulation. Is it true that in recent years, the Burundian drumming bands could often be seen at public and private parties? And not all Burundians agree on this cultural proliferation. For some people, creating a drum band has become a job with lots of potential.

“I first thought of playing football, then I opted for starting a drum band. But I didn’t have the funding to do so in the beginning, so I asked some help from a Dutch donor to buy me the drums,” Irakoze said.

The old drum chief Antime Baranshakaje disagreed with this popularisation method a long time ago: “It’s a scandal to see our drums being played at marriages and baptisms. They will finish using drumming also for funerals. The drum is not made for one person; on the contrary, it’s there for the whole country. Before, when the king got married, he didn’t even dare to invite the drummers for himself.”

“By using the drums at all these different occasions, they seem to lose the value and importance of the cultural tradition. None seem to understand the signification these days”, Mapfarakora added.

But for others, the genuine reasons for this controversial legislation need to be sought elsewhere.

Potential loss of heritage
The Ministry of Sports, Youth and Culture is being seen as opportunistic, giving preference to certain drumming bands over others. Critics say that from now the ministry will be the only organ mandated to design a drum band for a special occasion to perform, after an initial fee of $280 has been paid to the ministry. Several drum bands estimate that after having paid this fee, there won’t be much left for the drummers themselves.

Though the opinions differ within the country, the law will also have consequences abroad. The drum bands have become one of the well-known export products of Burundi. Different drumming groups have been invited, on several occasions, to international festivals and tourism fairs. Their impressive drumming style, combined with highly acrobatic dances, are largely appreciated all over the world. And the Burundian diaspora is also well known for engaging these drum bands each time national and other holidays come up. It is expected that with this new law these cultural travel trips could be seriously reduced or even disappear.

Whatever happens, the royal drums in Burundi will always remain a symbol of power. As chief drummer Antime Baranshakaje said in 2013, using a local proverb: “The beat of the drum is always determined by the one that marches in front”. But Achille, a tambourinaire that has been drumming for 15 years, recently said in the Iwacu newspaper: “What will the value of the national drums be, if … there aren’t any drummers anymore”.


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