Dance, Music, Arts & Literature

The Republic of Burundi
Cultural Heritage: Dance, Music, Arts & Literature

The rich culture of Burundi is mostly based on local customs and is influenced by neighboring countries. Nevertheless, in recent decades, due to civil unrest and the aftermath of the colonial period, traditional culture has been hindered in its flourishing process.

Alongside sport, the minister of Youth, Sport and Culture strongly encourages the pursuit of traditional dance and drumming. Another widespread form of entertainment is storytelling and the overall oral culture. The fact that many literates were killed in the 1st genocide, coupled with the then low literacy rate, meant that Burundians embraced even more their strong oral culture of storytelling, tales, fables, poetry and songs. Hereafter are some illustrations: Originally Igitito, which is storytelling in the form of chant, has an educational purpose and passes on the Burundian history. Kivivuga amazina is a form of poetry contest run by cattle herders where participants improvise creative songs about their accomplishments for instance. In Burundi’s culture, there is also imigani (proverbs), imvyino (type of song), guhoza umwana (berceuses), ivyivugo (poetry), indirimbo (songs), etc. Music goes hand in hand with any ceremony and life circumstance and Burundians have an amazing song repertoire. Uruvyino is a form of dance, accompanied by songs sung by everybody at the same time. One will start and everybody will follow.

With regards to dance, each region, in addition to main dances, has a specific kind of dance and drum. Initially drums were played for royal or religious ceremonies, sacred rituals, and for specific stages of life but more and more drumming has become a form of entertainment and many customs have been lost due to civil unrest. It is the national instrument and each kind of drum was associated with an event and served a purpose beyond music solely. For instance there were drums for dancing, other drums for when king moves, or even to guarantee fertility. Drums are mostly played in groups and not alone. Like in the region of the Gitega, with the former capital built by the Germans, the Batimbo were the guardians of the secrets of the royalty and were very significant to the pre-colonial period of monarchy. Without their drums- the ingoma (names apply to only this kind of drum and they were made in the umuvugangoma wood)- no protection or rituals linked with the Mwami (king) could be celebrated.

Only in specific circumstances and rituals could those drums be beaten and the rest of the time they were kept in a sanctuary. This shows how important drums could be to their traditions. This also appears in the annual ritual called umuganuro, which was last celebrated in its true form in the end at the 1920’s, before Christianity was expanded. This ritual was celebrated to mark the period during which inhabitants were permitted by the king to seed/sow sorgho. During this ritual, the appearance of the Karyenda, the master and royal drum, signalled the beginning of all the other drums and dances. The Batimbo dances are very acrobatic and repeat gestures of daily life. Thanks to that rare performance, the Batimbo became famous and while it kept a sacred character in the area of origin, the performance spread to the whole country but with a more cultural rather than sacred character because the ritual did not really exist outside the Kitega province.

Another type of drum was the rukinzo which was accompanying the mwami (king) everywhere he moved.

The Intore is the best known dance of Burundi/Rwanda and is a warrior dance performed in lines and with weapons. It also has variations according to what is celebrated.

In general, dances were carried out within a circle of singers/musicians/spectators and in particular the female-led dances were within the rugo (enclosure).

As there exist a great number of different dances, instruments, etc., here are some more words to be used for further inquiries: umuyebe (dance), inhunja (female dance), imisambi (female dance), umutsibo (female dance), ingoma (male dance), ubusambiri (dance), etc. ururimbo (song sung by one person or a small group), kwishongora (type of song), amashako (traditional drum), ibishikiso (traditional drum), ikilito singin (evening song), war songs, etc. umwironge (flute), ifirimbi (whistle), urukayamba (rectangular rattle), inzogera (bell), Ikembe (lamellophone), etc.

Nowadays the world-famous Royal Drummers of Burundi have been performing all over the globe for more than 40 years and use a large range of drums.

Crafts are as well an essential part of the Burundian cultural heritage. Amongst the traditional handicrafts, tightly woven baskets (with lids) are very special. From the twa, there are pottery of all size with some decorated, others not. In addition they produced masks, shields and wooden statues. Since late 2000, a revival of the traditional crafts is emerging again, although it is now influenced by modern art.

In terms of more modern art, in 1992 a relatively known Burundian movie Gito l’Ingrat (Gito the ungrateful) has been produced by Léonce Ngabo. Afterwards he continued to release movies. His most recent one is Histoire du Burundi which is a documentary from 2010.

Amongst some famous singers, Khadja Nin is a singer who later moved to Europe. After several failed attempts, she wishes to eventually come back and live in Burundi one day. Jean-Christophe Matata was a rapper, reggae and zouk singer which encountered a lot of success in Central African countries. Then in another category there is Esther Kamatari who is a writer and Burundian princess in exile in France. She is very active in the French civil society but also continues to try and support her native country from afar, giving special emphasis to women and orphans. One famous musician in both Burundi and Europe is John Chris. He excels in mixing pop music and traditional Burundian rhythms.

Another activity Burundians like to practice is Igisoro which is a mancala game (a form of board game).