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Rwanda accused of stealing drum beat after Burundi’s royal sacred drums were ‘illegally’ played on TV show

August 22, 2019 at 01:00 pm | Culture

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

August 22, 2019 at 01:00 pm | Culture

A group of Burundian refugees recently played the traditional drums during East Africa's Got Talent show with reports that they did not seek authorisation from the government back home. Pic credit: RegionWeek

Burundi officials have hit hard at organisers of East Africa’s Got Talent show after allowing the country’s sacred drums to be displayed during the event in Kigali, Rwanda.

A group of Burundian refugees recently played the traditional drums during the show with reports that they did not seek authorisation from the government back home.

Burundi’s laws prohibit people from playing the traditional drums, otherwise known as the Royal Drums without authorization from the government.

The country’s ritual royal drum playing was, in 2014, recognised as a protected cultural activity by UNESCO. Placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the UN cultural body describes the ritual dance of the royal drums as “a spectacle combining powerful, synchronised drumming with dancing, heroic poetry and traditional songs.”

It says the “entire population of Burundi recognises it as a fundamental part of its heritage and identity.”

The Himbaza Drummers, the group of drummers who took part in the East Africa’s Got Talent show, had fled Burundi since 2015 to seek refuge in Rwanda.

The group’s decision to showcase Burundi’s traditional drums in Rwanda is what has infuriated officials in Burundi since the two countries have been in ‘an open conflict’ since 2015.

Last December, in a letter cited by AFP, Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, accused Rwanda of being the cause of the crisis that Burundi has been going through since April 2015.

Rwanda “recruited and supported Burundian refugees who then tried to destabilize Burundi,” the letter, dated December 4 and addressed to Uganda president and mediator in the Burundian crisis, Yoweri Museveni, said.

“The country that we don’t have good relations with now wants to steal our drum beat,” Burundi’s Culture Minister Pelate Niyonkuru said in a statement.

Willy Nyamitwe, Counselor at the Presidency of Burundi, also criticized Rwanda on Twitter: “Not Original and not Authentic at all. These guys should be ashamed for debasing the quality and the cultural originality of Burundi drums in Rwanda.”

Meanwhile, members of the Himbaza Drummers refused to comment on the accusation since they were still in the competition.

In Burundi, its Royal Drum performances are considered to be one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.

“The dance calls for at least a dozen or so drums, always in an odd number, arranged in a semicircle around a central drum. Several are beaten in a continuous rhythm, while the others keep to the beat set by the central drum. Two or three drummers then perform dances to the rhythm. The ritual drumming is performed during national or local feasts and to welcome important visitors, and is said to awaken the spirits of the ancestors and drive out evil spirits. Bearers are recruited from sanctuaries across the country, many of whom are the descendants of drum sanctuary guards,” UNESCO writes.

A presidential decree, signed on October 20, 2017, said that if an organiser gets permission to have drummers perform at an event, he must pay the Treasury a fee equivalent to $280.

That same year, women were banned from beating the Royal Drums, a move that many believed limits the freedoms of women.

During the 15th century – in the first years of the monarchy in Burundi – the practice of beating the drum was then reserved for the clan called “Abanyagisaka,” located in Gitenga, Central Burundi.

Women were then beating drums since it was a tradition belonging to an entire clan and some families but the first Burundian monarch, Ntare Rushatsi Cambarantama later asked that these drums be played only at the court and only for the king. This is how they became ‘Royal Drums’, said Patrice Ntafatiro, a researcher of Burundian culture.

The drummers and drums were only played once a year in a royal festival called ‘Umuganuro’ (the festival of seeds). Ahead of the festival, members of the drumming family would go into the bush looking for trees to make the drums and this could take four months. After reports of incest between clans people during this period, elders agreed that only men will play the drums.

“The drums, in turn, became representative of the female and designed in a way that would reflect this symbolism,” writes Culture Trip.

Later, two other clans – Abasongore and Abaragane – were allowed to play the drums and since then, more people have joined in making the drums and playing them as well. Women even joined in recent years until the October 2017 decree which prohibited them again from playing the Royal Drums.

It is believed that Burundi passed this law “in an attempt to protect and continue in the practice of its sacred traditions.”

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