The ritual dance of the royal drums is regarded as an important part of Burundi’s heritage and identity. Several dozen drums are placed in a semi-circle around a central drum during the ritual dance.
According to UNESCO, the drums are beaten in a systematic rhythm, while others follow the beat set by the central drum. Two or three drummers step onto the floor to dance to the rhythm during this process. The ritual dance is typically performed at national or local feasts, as well as to welcome dignitaries.
The ritual dance of the royal drums was used in the ancient past to resurrect the spirits of the ancestors and drive out evil spirits. Bearers are drawn from sanctuaries across the country, with many descended from drum sanctuary guards.
Nobody is chosen to play the royal drums. The skill is passed down from generation to generation and is now taught formally. In modern times, the royal drum ritual dance is used to convey cultural, political, and social messages. Many times, the drums are beaten to promote unity and social cohesion.
UNESCO designated the royal drum ritual dance as an intangible cultural heritage in 2014. According to Africanews, the hope is to preserve a tradition that the people value and export it to the rest of the world.
The beating of the royal drums began in the 17th century to recognize the authority of the Royal family during the reign of the Burundi monarchy. The royal drum is regarded as a source of power, and any enthroned king is said to have ascended the drum. The highly revered drums have even been given names. Many of the drums’ whereabouts have become unknown over time. Rucitime and Murumirwa are in a traditional straw hut in Gishora, according to Africanews.
The royal drums for centuries have been carved from the largest trunks of the “umuvugaangoma” which means “the tree that makes the drum talk”.
Since UNESCO recognized the royal drum ritual dance in 2014, the Burundi government has taken a keen interest in it. The government, through its agencies, established guidelines for who and how to beat the royal drums. This resulted in the 2017 ban on women playing the drums and the dress code for drummers.
Troupes are required to register with government offices, while those wishing to hire drummers for private events must apply for special permits, which cost $250.
The government has frequently defended its tough stance on customs surrounding the drum, claiming that authorities have a responsibility to protect the dignity and cultural identity of the drum now that it has been listed by UNESCO.
In essence, the government is saying that it is right in issuing regulations to protect the royal drums which hold the soul of the nation.