Meet the Royal Burundi Drummers

Burundi Royal Drummers

The Royal Drummers of Burundi, commonly known in recordings as The Drummers Of Burundi, is a percussion ensemble from Burundi. Their performances are a part of ceremonies such as births, funerals, and coronations of Omuami (Kings).

Drums (called karyenda) are sacred in Burundi, and represent the mwami, fertility and regeneration. The Royal Drummers use drums made from hollowed tree trunks covered with animal skins. In addition to the central drum, called Inkiranya, there are Amashako drums which provide a continuous beat, and Ibishikiso drums, which follow the rhythm established by the Inkiranya.

The performance of the Royal Drummers has been the same for centuries, and their techniques and traditions are passed down from father to son. The members of the ensemble take turns playing the Inkiranya, dancing, resting, and playing the other drums, rotating throughout the show without interruptions.

At the start of their performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads and singing and playing. There are some extra members who carry ornamental spears and shields and lead the procession with their dance.

They then perform a series of rhythms, some accompanied by song, and exit the stage the same way, carrying the drums on their heads and playing.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Drummers have toured the world. They have recorded at least three albums – Batimbo (Musiques Et Chants) in 1991,The Drummers of Burundi (1992, recorded 1987) Real World (retitled Live at Real World in 1993) and The Master Drummers of Burundi (1981 lp, 1994 cd).

They have also appeared on Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), on Zimbo, the B-side of the Echo & the Bunnymen 12″ single of The Cutter (1983), and the Def Leppard single “Rocket”.

They have influenced artists such as Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, and inspired Thomas Brooman to organize the WOMAD festival in 1982, which shaped the burgeoning world music genre.


The Burundian drum is made from a piece of tree trunk, cut from certain forest species especially Imivugangoma , cordia-africana (which means trees that make drums speak). An adult ox’s or cow’s skin is stretched over this hollowed-out section of trunk and secured to the wood using wooden pegs. In general, the drum is played with sticks.

The term ingoma(drum) in Burundi has a very wide semantic field; it can refer to percussion drum, ritual drum, dynastic drum, power (royalty or otherwise), reign (or equivalent), government era, particular country (kingdom).

At the period of kingdom, nobody in Burundi could manufacture a drum or have a drum manufactured without a formal order from the king, who alone held the privilege of owning the drums and having them played for him.


History of Burundi drums

  • The sacred drums

Meaning of sacred drums
At the period of Kingdom (XVI – XVII s) drums in Burundi were much more than simple musical instruments.  As sacred objects, they were only played under exceptional circumstances and then always for ritual purposes including the coronations and kings’ funerals.

The sacred drums were myth of the country, the symbol of the sovereignty of the king.  They assured the protection of the country and kept rhythm with regular cycle of the seasons which ensured the prosperity of the livestock and maximum yield from the crops.


Names of Royal sacred drums and their specific roles
Karyenda: The drum assured the security of the country.  It was always hidden in the royal court.  During the conquest war, the kingdom was not conquered if the enemy didn’t arrive to capture this drum.

Hence whoever was in charge of watching on it had to oath for his fidelity, rather dying instead of handing it over or showing it to anybody, including the biological prince, and especially to the enemy of the country.

Karyenda was only brought from its sanctuary on very rare occasions particularly during the rites associated with umuganuro- celebration of the first fruits and of sowing the sorghum – which corresponded to the announcement of the beginning of agricultural season.

At this important event, the king himself beat the drum three times the eve of the ceremony giving a kick of to other drums.  Karyenda also had to announce the death of the king.
Rukinzo: Took part in the ceremony of the king going to bed and waking up and generally making out the rhythm of the life of the court.  Rukinzo also accompanied the king everywhere he went and was renewed with each change of reign.
Ruciteme: Assured the protection of livestock from kingdom court.
Murimirwa:  Assured the protection of the crops.
Nyabuhoro:  Stayed at the royal court to assure the peace of the country. f). Inajurwe and Inakigabiro:  These drums assured the protection of the country against calamities of all natures. They were the foundation of the nation. At the end of the kingdom, the sacred drums have been kept in historical place, but none could tell where Karyenda did go.


  • Simple drums

These drums were reserved for games and dances solely at the important events of the nation and in the presence of the king.  No other authority had this right. Nowadays, the drum remains an instrument that is both revered as popular reserved for national celebrations and for distinguished guests.

  • The drum sanctuaries

A tight network of mythical high places formed the political, religious and mythical framework of pre-colonial Burundi. Among these high places we can include the drum sanctuaries.

These were properties owned by the mainly Hutu lineages and they alone, with the king’s consent, held the privilege of manufacturing, playing and keeping drums and of bringing a certain number to the court on the occasion of the ritual of the umuganuro.

A sacred drum was enthroned in each sanctuary, surrounded by its attendants, the ingendanyi drums, and a set of drums that played for them. Four examples of sanctuaries: Gishora (hill), not far from Gitega: sacred drums kept there: ruciteme (for whom one clears brush) and murimirwa (for whom one ploughs); maintenance of sacred python in a nearby copse.

Lineage of Abanyakisaka drummers; the Higiro hill, also not far from Gitega: the sacred inakigabiro (lady of the land) drum. Lineage of the Abashaka drummers; Magamba hill: the lineage of the Abazimbura of this sanctuary was responsible for renewing the rukinzo drum with each change of reign.

  • Music of drums

Burundi drummers are representatives of Burundi folklore.  This ritual dance surprises and fascinates because it’s unique in the world to impose the drummers to follow the movement of the dancer.

The drummers use two sticks of 30 to 40 centimeters to beat the drum. Drums are placed on half circle of 12 to 25 following an ascendant order. One drum called Inkiranya, is placed at the middle, and is reserved to the leader of the dance.

Drums are divided in two parts based on their rhythms.  The first part of drums called Amashako provides a continuous beat and their drummers are known as Abakokezi.  The second part of drums called Ibishikizo follows the movement imposed by the dancer and the drummers are called Abavuzamurisho.

The latest observe the movement of the dancer, because the change of the rhythm is indicated by his/her gestures. The drummers take turns playing the inkiranya, dancing, resting and playing the other drums, rotating throughout the show without interruptions.

At the start of the performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads and singing and playing.  There are some extra members who carry ornamental spears and shields and lead the procession with their dance.

The dancers perform a series of rhythms, some accompanied by a song.
The play of drummers is relevant to sound and gesture rhythm that fascinate generations with mixture of spectacular gravity and admirable fantasies.  The music expresses the popular and vital joy.


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