“Music is in my blood. I was born dancing and drumming. From as early as I can remember, it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do,” says Gabriel Ntagabo.
Ntagabo is director of the Royal Drummers of Burundi, a world renowned African percussion and dance ensemble that will appear at Carmel’s Palladium this week.
The powerful sound of the Burundi drummers is rooted in traditions that are centuries old, but their thundering rhythms sound as fresh and modern today as any contemporary beat. I asked Ntagabo about this tradition and how it has been passed down through the generations.
“Drumming in Burundi has been handed down from father to son for centuries,” he says. “As each new generation is born, the boys begin following the drummers. At the age of six, they start to practice and learn. There is no school. Gradually, over time, the best drummers begin to stand out and they may be in their first performance as young as 13-years-old. Many boys want to be drummers, but ultimately only the best will do it professionally —— as you will see during this tour of North America.”
The group has become famous for its dynamic live performances.
“Our first appearance on a big world stage was with Peter Gabriel at his WOMAD Festival in 1982,” Ntagabo says.
He elaborated that dance is a major element in the drummers’ presentation.
“Our show is highly energetic, and the dancing involves great jumping —— almost acrobatic-like —— and many symbolic movements,” Ntagabo says. “Normally the dancer follows the rhythm of the music, but in Burundi drumming the beat must follow the dancer. The dancer is the leader.”
The tiny East-Central African nation of Burundi is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite this designation, Burundi’s rich cultural heritage has attracted serious global interest for decades. Recorded works by the Drummers of Burundi have famously been used as inspiration and sample fodder for many Western artists.
In 1971 British musician Mike Steiphenson used a Drummers of Burundi field recording as the rhythmic foundation of his UK hit “Burundi Black.” Joni Mitchell did the same in 1975, utilizing the drummers’ rhythms as a backing track for “The Jungle Line.” In the 1980s the hip-hop world caught up with the drummers and you can hear the Burundi rhythms on The Beastie Boys’ classic “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.” Around the same time, Sex Pistols’ manger Malcolm McLaren began to champion the group, urging his new wave protégées Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant to cull the Drummers of Burundi sound for influence.
I asked Ntagabo to speculate why the group’s sound has been so influential.
“Our manner of playing is unique to us. It is strong and powerful with wonderful rhythms,” he says.
And unique it is —— the slow and steady rhythmic lines of the Burundi drumming style varies greatly from the complex polyrhythms found in other well known African drumming traditions. The apparent simplicity of the Burundi rhythms makes work easier for Western appropriation and imitation.
As our conversation concluded, I asked Ntagabo if Burundi drumming traditions have maintained their importance in contemporary society, or if they’ve been surpassed by popular forms of entertainment.
“The drummers are as important in our culture today as they have been for centuries,” he says, emphatically. “It gives our country a strong identity and it unifies everyone. Our young people are more interested in the drumming music than any other kind of music. The drummers are always present for important events and people, as they were for the king in the past. Now they are present for dignitaries, important government projects and events.”
Thanks to Madelaine Collinson for translating this interview.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. After a vintage recording from the Drummers of Burundi, this week's selection focuses on recent African music releases.
1. Drummers of Burundi - Arivivée et Salut a L'assistance (1993, Milan Records)
2. Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars - Rain Come Sun Come (2012, Cumbancha)
3. Staff Benda Bilili - Bilanga (2012, Crammed Discs)
4. Amadou & Mariam - C'est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles (2012, Nonesuch)
5. Batida - Ncongo Jamin (2012, Soundway)
6. Diabel Cissokho - Dialiya (2012, World Village)
7. Zani Diabate - Mali Yafa (2012, Stern's Africa)
8. Tamikrest - Aratan N Tinariwen (2012, Ais)
9. Mokoomba - Mvula (Zig Zag World, 2012)
10. Ba Cissoko - Nimissa (2012, Cristal Records)
11. Thiossane Ablaye Ndiaye - Siket (2012, Stern's Africa)
12. Ebo Taylor - Abonsam (2012, Strut Records)
13. Samuel Yirga - Firma Ena Wereket (2012, Real World)