In Burundi, the drum is a revered symbol of unity. But only men can play.

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In Burundi, the drum is a revered symbol of unity. But only men can play.

GITEGA, BURUNDI – A group of about 30 men, balancing heavy equipment on their heads, walked in a solemn procession across a red-clay arena, where silence was soon replaced by a sound essential to Burundi’s cultural identity. Will be given: Drum.

Led by an old man carrying a spear and a shield, the group formed a crescent, set their drums and began to play to the gathered tourists, rumbling music down a hill several miles from Gitega, the capital of Burundi. was ringing.

“Druming in Burundi is about history,” said the leader of the cast, Royal Drummer Oscar Nishimirimana of Burundi. “It’s about power. It’s about freedom.”

But in Burundi, where the instrument has long held a prominent place in politics, culture and economics, not everyone is free to drum.

In 2017, Burundi’s president at the time, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a decree banning women from performing traditional synchronized drumming, which is often accompanied by ritual dance, song or poetry. Women are only allowed to perform ritual dances.

Also part of the new rules: drumming was mostly confined to official ceremonies. Private event organizers who wanted to perform a traditional drummer were required to obtain authorization from a government minister and pay a fee for the privilege. Anyone accused of breaking the rules in one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of $239 in 2020, faced a fine of up to $500, according to the World Bank.

Five years later, the measures are still in place.

Louis Kamwenubusa, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of East African Community Affairs, Youth, Sports and Culture in Burundi, recently defended laws protecting Burundi’s culture as “preserving and protecting”.

Mr Kamavenubusa argued that women had not been royal drummers for centuries, so allowing them to perform would be against long-honored practices. He said the ban on female drummers is in line with that.

The sanctions have been condemned as another sign of how Mr Nkurunziza, who died in June 2020, and his elected successor, President Evariste Nadisimi, are aiming to rein in Burundian society. Human rights groups have accused both administrations of using national intelligence with pro-government youth militias to crack down on civil liberties and the press, torture and kill opponents, and survey citizens’ actions.

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For women like Emily Nekengurutse, who once belonged to a women’s drumming group in Bujumbura, the country’s largest city, the restrictions mean the loss of both an important source of income and a lifelong passion.

“I miss beating the drums,” said Ms. Nakengurutse, who now makes a living selling only her vegetables. “I often go and watch performances and sometimes I feel like I want to take the drumsticks and play, but I can’t.”

In Burundi, a country with a population of 11 million, the importance of the drum is hard to overestimate.

In the local Kirundi language, “ingoma” means both “drum” and “state” – reflecting its centrality to prestige and power.

In Burundi, traditional drums – long, hollow wooden trunks wrapped in cow hide and secured with wooden pegs – are usually made from Cordia africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. In the local language, the tree is known as “umuvugangoma”, which translates to “the tree that speaks to the drum.”

Historically, drums were used as a tool to communicate over a distance. It is deployed on the thrones of the royals as well as at their funerals. And it has been used as the equivalent of the war flag, whose capture by the opposing force was synonymous with defeat.

Burundian drummers became prominent outside the country’s borders after independence, illustrated by stars such as Joni Mitchell, who used recordings of the drums on her 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawn”.

Even today drumming continues to fuel the community. The Burundian drum is commonly present at a variety of events including weddings, baptisms, fairs and graduation ceremonies.

In 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the ritual performance of the royal drummer to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, calling it “a means of bringing together peoples of different generations and origins, thereby promoting unity and social justice.” Encouraged. Harmony.”

But if the dhol has been praised as a unifying instrument, government sanctions have made it a trade-off between men and women, and between those who can pay government fees and those who cannot. made divisive.

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“It’s a shock to me,” said Ani Irankunda, a Burundian-American drummer whose drumming group was cast in the superhero film “Black Panther.” When the film was shown on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Burundi’s largest city, Bujumbura, she said she could not play the drums with the local, all-male troupe that had been invited to perform.

Of all the ceremonial functions of the drum, the most important role was played to mark the annual farming season, when the king encouraged his men to plow with his hoe. On the day of the ceremony, two large drums – known as rukitem, meaning “for which we clear the forest” and murimirva, meaning “for whom we cultivate” – are thrashed in a sacred rite. Will go

Those two drums, about 119 years old, still remain in the Gishora Dhol Sanctuary outside Gitega, where Sri Nashimirimana and his troupe perform.

Now a major tourist attraction because of drum performances, the site was founded in the late 19th century by King Mwezi Gisabo, the last independent ruler of Burundi before German colonial rule began.

Burundi became a colony of Belgium after World War I, with the drum playing an important role even after independence in 1962. A drum, along with a sorghum plant, was featured in the country’s first post-independence flag.

But in 2022 Burundi, Mr. Nishimirimana said he was concerned about training the next generation of drummers and praising the instrument for its important place in Burundian culture and history.

Among the near-term challenges are not only government restrictions, but also travel limits related to the pandemic, which severely curtail tourism to the sanctuary. In an effort to boost tourism, Burundi has recently started allowing all foreign nationals to obtain a visa on arrival.

Dressed in the red, green and white robes of the Burundi flag, Mr. Nishimirimana said one afternoon, “We’ve been here for centuries.” “And I hope we stay here for many more.”

Hussein Butoyi contributed reporting.

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