Rhythm lovers will be in percussion nirvana at Three Stages on Monday, Nov. 19, when the Royal Burundi Drummers and Dancers take the stage.
The music is nothing like the sounds of a traditional Western drum and cymbal set, or even conga drums.
Picture 22 drummer-dancer-singers, 20 with large wooden drums balanced sideways on their heads. Each performer has two fat sticks that are used to play rhythm on the cowhide top of a drum, or along the wooden sides, or clicked together while walking or dancing. Two leaders carrying ornamental spears and shields lead the procession with their dancing.
Unlike most percussion ensembles, the drummers are at the same time dancers and singers.
As the performers enter the stage, wearing their native costumes of white, green and red, they place their waist-high drums in a semicircle around a central drum. They take turns playing the central drum, rotating continuously throughout the performances.
The largest drum is placed in the center. It is the only one that is decorated. The central drum, called the Inkiranya, is painted to resemble the Burundi flag. A white diagonal cross with a white circle in the center divides the pattern into four areas of green and red. Green represents hope. White symbolizes peace. Red is for the sacrifice of those who died in the struggle for independence, which came in 1962. Independence was followed by years of civil wars and instability.
In the center circle three red six-pointed stars are outlined in green. The stars stand for the three major ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, and for the national motto: Unity, Work, Progress.
Burundi sits on a high plateau in East Africa surrounded by deep valleys. The country is about the size of the state of Maryland and has approximately 10.5 million people. Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo share boundaries. The capital city, Bujumbura, is on Lake Tanganyika.
The country was once part of German East Africa, then came under Belgian rule, and was a United Nations trust territory. French and Kirundi are the main languages. Swahili is commonly used for business transactions.
The Royal Drummers of Burundi have been touring since the 1960s, sharing their music and culture. There is no school for Burundi drumming and no place to purchase a drum. The art has been transmitted from father to son over generations for centuries.
Children begin their drum training at ages 5 to 7. By the time they are 12 or 13, the most promising are invited to go on tour. The performers are rotated to give as many as possible the opportunity to travel, perform and earn money.
In ancient Burundi, the Hutu people learned to shape the drums and create the polyrhythmic performances that combined the three expressions of drumming, dancing and singing.
The drums are hollowed out from the trunk of a rare tree called D’umuvugangoma, meaning “the tree that makes the drums speak.” The instruments were revered as sacred, and when not in use they were stored in sanctuaries.
The drums were reserved for ceremonial use — the enthronement and funerals of rulers. The Royal Drummers and Dancers also accompanied the rulers on their travels.
For the Hutu, who were farmers, and for whom the cow was sacred, the drums also represent fertility and regeneration. Drumming signaled the beginning of the agricultural year and the changing seasons. Many of their rhythms relate to everyday life: the planting, harvesting and protection of the sorghum crop, familiar birds and praises of the cow.
Some of the rhythms describe the long travels to find a drum tree.
Other rhythms call to appreciate important people, or encourage peace, mutual respect or unity, or progress for Burundi.
Thirty-one of these stories will be told at Three Stages in a fusion of awe-inspiring cross-rhythms and physical strength and speed with a blending of solemnity and humor.
The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi were the inspiration for the first World of Music Arts and Dance Festival held in England in 1982. WOMAD continues to this day, and is held in several places throughout the world. Rock bands in the 1970s and ‘80s picked up on the Burundi beat. They appear on Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.” They have recorded three albums.
In 2006 the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi made a six-week sold-out tour of the United States and Canada. This fall they are taking their second coast-to-coast tour.
The Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi will perform at Three Stages at Folsom Lake
College, 10 Collage Parkway, on Monday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m.
Tickets are available online at threestages.net or from Three Stages Ticket Office at 916-608-6888, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and two hours before show time.