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root salad Burundi Drummers

The Womad veterans were back this year with a new generation. Elisavet Sotiriadou gets with the beat.


he Drummers Of Burundi engage their collective soul, feet, hands and whole being in the beat, so that their spirit unites with the spirit of the drum. And there is a reason why you see no women on stage when this percussion ensemble play. “It’s a physical and cultural thing: the moves are too much for a woman to handle and so, in Burundi culture, women do not play this drum,” their manager says.

This is one of the many conversations I have with musicians at this summer’s Womad at Charlton Park. The Burundi Drummers have just come off stage and are preparing to go for lunch before a workshop commitment, but their manag- er, plus musician Astere, agree to do an interview before their well deserved food break. So I grab a large portion of their lunch hour, fascinated by their instru- ments, and listen to them both tell me their story under the blue sky.

Keeping to tradition is very important, almost sacred for the Drummers Of Burun- di. Proud of their music and instruments, their performance has not changed over the centuries as teaching has been passed on from father to son, a true transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. Their drums were introduced during the rule of the first Burundian king around the 16th century, their manager estimates. Astere, one of the younger members of the group, says playing the drum gives him a lot of pleasure, because when he per- forms those rhythms from the grandpar- ents, it’s like a memory of Burundian histo- ry that comes alive before him.

Saving their cultural heritage has not always been easy as Burundi has been through challenging times with colonisa- tion, civil war and struggle for indepen- dence. How has their music been affected? The problem is mostly of a practical nature, the manager tells me. “The trees from which the drums are made have been destroyed. It’s a very special tree, which we try to grow now. But if I plant it today, it will take a minimum of 25 years for the tree to grow.” The hollowed tree trunk forms the base of the drum and on the top there is cowhide, which can easily be replaced when worn out. It’s the wood that is harder to find.

“It is a big honour to be one of the first bands to open Womad 2010,” Astere tells me. Their first appearance was almost 28 years ago at the very first Womad festival. But this is a younger version of the Drum- mers where most musicians are between 20 and 30 years old. There might be one or two musicians from the original band on stage but as they become too old, new

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members have replaced the older ones and the current band has members so young that they were not even born at the time of the Burundi Drummers’ first Womad.

I look at Astere, who is continuously smiling, and ask if he was nervous getting up on stage and performing. “I can’t be nervous, because it’s my art! Yes!” he says, with unreserved confidence.

The manager and Astere speak Kirundi between them, a Bantu language that is mostly spoken in Burundi. On stage it is the language of the music, the body and the rhythms that convey their culture to the audience. With 12 people on stage, it looks simple when they’re dancing, beating the drums and keeping the tempo while they balance the drums on their heads. They move with such certainty it’s as if the drum is no heavier than a feather.

In the past, their music has appeared on recordings by Joni Mitchell, Adam & The Ants and Echo & The Bunnymen. And recently they’ve had new groups who have been inspired by their style as well, like the French ‘Les Tambours Du Bronx’. “There’s no problem in people imitating our style, because they’ll never be up to the Burun- dian level on the drums,” Astere tells me.


ut is there anyone who in turn inspires them? “Nobody inspires us, we have a unique performance, we have never been inspired and I

don’t think we will be inspired by somebody else,” their manager says without being impolite, though I can’t help but burst out laughing. He is sincere and doesn’t mean it in a bad way. The beliefs about his country’s music are very strong, I tell him. “It is our culture; even if we meet someone who can inspire us, I don’t think it will be possible,” he continues, and by this point we are all laughing.

I love their answers and the fact that we are having a conversation more than an interview. What is special about the Drummers Of Burundi is that they are pro- tecting their music from foreign influence. “We need to be independent in that mat- ter. Sometimes, we can do something for a few minutes with another star, but nor- mally we ask them to follow us, not for us to follow them,” the manager says firmly.

So we won’t hear any new sounds incorporated into the Burundi Drummers’ music any time soon. It’s strictly clean drumbeats and their purpose is to stay as close to their original style as possible. F

Photo: Judith Burrows

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