The Burundi drum culture and how it threatened the just concluded East Africa’s Got Talent

Esther and Ezekiel Mutesasira the winners of East Africa’s Got Talent.

Ugandan siblings Esther and Ezekiel Mutesasira have been crowned the winners of the first edition of East Africa’s Got Talent in a contest that drew participation from four regional countries.

The singing duo won a cash prize of $50,000 (£40,000) in the Sunday night finale that had six contestants.

The other finalists were Comedic Dance Group (Uganda), Dance Alliance Network (Uganda), Jehovah Shalom Acapella (Uganda), Janella Tamara (Kenya), Spellcast (Kenya) and Inteyoberana cultural troupe (Rwanda).

Esther and Ezekiel, aged 14 and 11 years respectively, performed a rendition of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey’s ‘when you believe’ at Sunday’s finale.

It won over judges and tweeters who commended them using the hashtag #EAGTFinale.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni sent his congratulation to the duo in a tweet soon after they were announced winners.

The competition is part of Got Talent franchise owned by English entertainment mogul Simon Cowell. It drew participation from Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and hosts Kenya.

The show became the topic of a heated debate in August after the Burundi government accused a group of Burundian refugees of illegally playing the country’s famous traditional drums on the show.

The law in Burundi prohibits people from playing the national drums without the government’s authorisation.

Burundi’s ritual royal drum playing was recognised as a protected cultural activity by Unesco in 2014.

The drummers who took part in the talent show had sought refuge in neighbouring Rwanda, a regional nemesis of Burundi.

Burundi the heart of drums

There is no other country that is living proof of the power of drums than the small country of Burundi. Known for it’s strong drum traditionalism, it has taken it’s pride and talent for the instrument to the international stage. Maybe  this is the reason why drums of Burundi have been add to the UNESCO world heritage recently.

The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi have taken their country’s drum centered culture and displayed this to the world with pride and expertise. This percussion ensemble from the tiny country have been performing worldwide since the 1960s. They have also recorded three albums, have appeared on soundtracks in various movies and influenced artists such as Bow wow wow* or Adam and the Ants**. They inspired the creation of the WOMAD festival in 1982. A festival that put world music on the scene. Today they tour the world, performing in the most prestigious auditoriums in front of thousands of people from many cultures. They are living proof that African culture is exportable just as it is !

What is this culture really about you may wonder?

Ancient Burundi drums were more than mere musical instruments. They were sacred objects for the purpose of ceremonial use and were only used in exceptional circumstances and according to specific rituals.

Drum beats basically represented all the major happenings of the country : enthronements, funerals of rulers or celebrating the cycle of seasons. There is also a strong relationship between drums and nature, so much so that the drums announce the beginning of the agricultural year and the sowing of the Soughum seeds to make Soughum beer. The drums are also named after the concept of fertility. For example «Amabere » the pegs means breasts or « Umukondo » the foot of the drum refers to the umbilical cord.

Fact is the drums never lost their symbolic and ritualistic meaning. They remain a significant part of the Burundian culture. The flag of the nation holds a drum at it’s heart: the ancient Karyenda (represented by the circle at the center). It has a semi-divine status for the country. Legend has it that only the « mwami » (ruler) could interpret the messages of Karyenda and turn them into rules governing society. This is why it was chosen as a symbol of the national flag when Burundi emerged from Belgian colonial rule.

The royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi are the very embodiment of the importance of drum culture in Burundi, they powerfully perform the techniques and traditions passed down from father to son for generations. The members of the group take turns playing a central drum, rotating skillfully throughout their breathtaking performances. In their country and on the world stage, They remain true to the specific cultural and symbolic representation of the drum performance.

If there is any way to conclude, it is simply to say that the Royal drummers are an example and inspiration for Africa. They are living proof that African culture can be taken to the world stage intact and still be embraced and highly appreciated without undergoing any form of « adaptation ».

About Yusuf Mwesigwa

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  1. So amazing. That is Africa.

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