‘The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi’ at George Mason University by Dr. Cheryl Paulhus


On Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 I attended a performance of The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts as part of ‘Great Performances at Mason’ Series.

From a tiny country in Central Africa comes one of the most celebrated percussion ensembles in the world.The world-famous The Royal Drummers of Burundi have performed for over forty years and are noted for traditional drumming using the karyenda, amashako, ibishikiso, and ikiranya drums. In tonight’s performance at George Mason University, the Music of the Royal Drummers of Burundi washed over the audience like a thunderous polyrhythmic waterfall. BOOM! Powerful, and athletic yet graceful in their overall presentation, the drummers are multi-talented. The magnificent drumming at once captivated the audience with a feeling of exuberance, as though we all shared the same heartbeat.

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi. Photo by Thomas Rosenthal/for InsideNoVA.com.

Drumming is an important part of the Burundian cultural heritage. The Drummers of Burundi are Master Drummers from the small African country between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. In the pre-discussion presentation, Gabriel Ntagabo, Group Leader of the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi tells us “there is no drumming school; the art is truly transmitted from father to son over the generations. The children come to the drums between age 5-7 and move to the big drums at age 12 to 13, the most promising drummers will go on tour, we try to rotate the drummers, so many can have this opportunity to perform and earn money.” These drums are no ordinary drums, you cannot buy them in a store. The Ngoma drums that the Drummers of Burundi play are hollowed out from the trunk of particular tree called D’umuvugangoma, meaning, “the tree that makes the drums speak,” and speak did they. As Gabriel Ntagabo noted, “Communications through the drums explain what is happening in the Burundi Psyche.”

From the philosophical perspective of the African musician, cross-beats can symbolize the challenging moments or emotional stress we all encounter. Playing cross-beats while fully grounded in the main beats, prepares one for maintaining a life-purpose while dealing with life’s challenges. From the African viewpoint, the rhythms represent the very fabric of life itself; they are an embodiment of the people, symbolizing interdependence in human relationships. Many sub-Saharan languages do not have a word for rhythm, or even music. Indeed, words do not suffice! The experience this evening was absolutely hypnotic and I along with the remainder of the audience could barely sit still. The Royal Drummers are a display full of energy, grace, and pure athleticism. They hammer out compelling rhythms and complex syncopations while leaping, dancing and singing over their waist-high drums.

This evening’s performance involved as much dance and drama as it did percussion, making it a stunning visual feast for the eyes. A crescent of around a dozen or more great log drums, made from hollowed-out tree trunks covered with dried animal skins, are pounded by the drummers in traditional Burundi costume. The Drummers enter the stage carrying these massive drums on their head. In the center of the semi-circle the Drummers form on the stage, the painted Inkiryana lead drum is played by all of the drummers in turn before each piece ends. The drummers leap, twist and spin around the Inkiryana with tremendous energy, dancing with as much skill, expressiveness, and roaring excitement as they drum.

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi are regarded as one of the greatest percussion ensembles in the world, having passed down traditions and techniques from father to son for centuries. While the origins of their performances are shrouded in ancient legend, the Royal Drummers channel the creative spirit of a nation through the thunderous sounds of their drums and the rituals surrounding them.

The Royal Drummers performances were traditionally a part of particular ceremonies, such as births, funerals and the enthronement of Kings. In Burundi, drums are sacred and represent, along with the king, the powers of fertility and regeneration. Gabrielle Ntagabo further stated, “The drum is also a representation of the female form. Today the drum remains a revered instrument and like the female, is seen as the center of life.”

The drumming itself was akin to a slow, rolling tidal wave, roaring as it built up. It is no wonder tonight as the Royal Drummers danced, leapt and twirled their drumsticks in concert with the sound of the drums, they inspired the audience at George Mason to feel a mystical connection to their ancient legends and each other.

Ever wonder where Adam and the Ants got their distinctive drum style? Beginning in the 1960s, the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi have toured the world. Their massed drum sound, or the “Burundi beat” as it became known, also caught the ear of Western musicians and they appeared on Joni Mitchell’s, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). Their distinctive sound also influenced British rock bands of the early 1980’s, such as Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow. It was seeing the drummers that inspired Thomas Brooman and Peter Gabriel to organize the first WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) international festival in 1982, an event that helped to spark the whole World Music boom. The sound of the Royal Drummers inspired world music to become part of the mainstream.

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi were recorded at Real World Studios in 1993 and released the live album on the Real World Label. Other recordings followed including The Master Drummers of Burundi in 1994 and The Drummers of Burundi in 1999. In 2006 the Company undertook a Sold Out six week coast to coast tour of the United States of America and Canada and has returned  to North America in the Fall of 2012 to undertake a coast to coast tour of the United States and Canada.

The Royal Drummers & Dancers of Burundi. Photo courtesy of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

The night closed at George Mason with thunderous applause that matched the Drummers explosive beats along with a standing ovation. Their live performance is the ultimate African drum experience, a virtuoso performance you do not want to miss.

Running Time: 90 minutes plus one intermission.

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi will perform today, October 7, 2012, at 4 PM in Merchant Hall at the Hylton Performing Arts Center –  10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For tickets, purchase them online. Here are directions.



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3 Responses to ‘The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi’ at George Mason University by Dr. Cheryl Paulhus

  1. Dawne October 7, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    wish I lived in DC so I could attend this exciting show! love the review! Hartford, CT

  2. Elizabeth Gyure October 7, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Although I was not at this performance, Dr. Paulus’ review brought me there! Not only is she a beautiful dancer, amazing teacher, and a thoughtful counselor, her writing skills here made me more aware of her many talents. Congratulations on this gig, Cheryl! Your review entertained, brought forth heart and soul, knowledge and courage..

  3. Sarah Williamas October 7, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    What a glowing review of The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi. It is this type of endorsement that brings audiences to experience something new and exciting in the music world.