in performance: the royal drummers and dancers of burundi

the royal drummers and dancers of burundi.

It began and ended with a bare stage floor earlier this afternoon at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. In the interim, however, there was considerable thunder. Then again, creating and deflating a percussive typhoon has long been standard operating procedure for the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi.

The ensemble’s 12 percussionists, all with the build and stamina of Olympians, exhibited their percussive might on a series of drums created out of hollow tree trunks. The resulting music – usually performed for births, funerals and enthronements in the musicians’ African homeland – could be viewed as incantatory given its cyclic nature. One would be hard pressed, though, to think of sounds with such sustained physical strength as being even remotely meditative. But celebratory and joyous? Absolutely. The performance was like a massive, manhandling embrace from another culture that was as warm as it was demonstrative.

The musicians entered the concert hall from the EKU Center’s lobby and walked through the audience, their massive drums balanced on their heads. The effect could easily be paralleled to the rumble of a gathering storm. Once onstage, the drums were lined up in a crescent formation with one larger drum situated centerstage.

The program notes divided the performance into two “acts,” each containing between 14 and 17 “scenes.” But what the casual ear heard was a sampler of extended segments where four of the drummers established a rhythm by hitting the cowhide heads of their instruments. The rest accented the momentum with cracks created by hitting the side of the drums. Then in solo, duo and trio combinations, the drummers came to the front, offered athletic leaps, dances and electric smiles as their bandmates cheered and chanted them on. The featured musicians then hit the sides of the centerstage drum, cueing the entire ensemble to gather into a singular, seemingly atomic rhythm. The resulting groove was powerfully symmetric.

To some, such a performance might have seemed somewhat lacking in variety. After all, there was no rhythm section, no addition instrumentation and no contemporary concessions of any kind. But the drummers’ joyous athleticism and the music’s intoxicating (if not, intimidating) rhythmic sway never once seemed static.

At the end of the performance’s second 45 minute act, the drummers placed the instruments back atop their heads, circled by the lip of the stage before becoming a silhouetted caravan that slowly and solemnly strode offstage, a portable storm moving on to the next village.

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