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African drums bring down the DPAC

Laura Miller | Friday, November 3, 2006

Last night, the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts was alive with the sound of Africa.

The opening act to the night’s festivities featured the Mombasa Party from Mombasa, Kenya. While the whole group was not in attendance, their performance was compelling nonetheless. They played six well-known Kenyan songs, all in Swahili. Although listening to songs in foreign languages can sometimes be frustrating for the audience, the Mombasa Party sang songs that were repetitious and easy to hum along to. Translations were also provided in the program for easier understanding. Audiences familiar with the Swahili-influenced character names of “The Lion King” could easily pick up on several songs.

The Mombasa Party had a unique style, in part by their unusual combination of instruments – including the “tashkota,” a string instrument similar to a banjo in sound but played more like a mandolin. Mohamed Adio Shigoo played this instrument, along with the harmonium. Other players included Ali Gofu (double bass), Anasi Mbwana (bongos, chorus) and Zuhura Swaleh (vocals). The Mombasa Party plays a style of music called “taarab,” that has distinctly Indian roots. However, they pull in elements from many cultures around the world. The tashkota is actually a Japanese instrument, and some of the songs sounded as if they had significant Caribbean influences as well.

The only criticism of the group’s performance was they did not have enough energy to enliven such a large performance space. While ideal for their usual venue of weddings and other more personal celebrations, some of their impact was lost in the Leighton Concert Hall. Due to the fact that they either could not – or chose not – to speak English, they had a difficult time encouraging the audience participation that they obviously desired.

Before intermission, the Royal Drummers of Burundi powered onstage and gave the audience a “preview” of what was to come. The audience was left shell-shocked when the drummers suddenly stopped and the stage went dark for intermission. The talent of the Drummers is absolutely breathtaking, and their history adds to their artistic significance.

The Royal Drummers of Burundi have been performing for centuries – the skills passed down through familial lines. Originally, they performed at traditional African religious ceremonies. The drummers have special importance for Burundi – drums are considered sacred. The dedication and polished skill of the Drummers made this apparent, but shining through the performance was an admirable patriotism. Their love of country and passion for their flag were visible in the beauty of their dance, and the pervasiveness of the colors of their flag – red, green and white. A spear and shield were used throughout the performance, both bearing these colors. These objects were carried by all of the Drummers in turn and were crucial to the ceremonial nature of the performance.

The rhythms played during the performance all had cultural significance to the Drummers, ranging from a “song about peace” to a “song about the importance of traditional culture in Burundi” to a song “about the return of cows.” Each rhythm was accented by fantastic cultural dancing. Not only did the Drummers prove to be talented musicians, but also they were terrific vocalists, incredible dancers and amazingly fit.

This fitness is easily explained by the complexity and demanding nature of their routines. When the dancers weren’t leaping into the air and touching their heads to their knees, they were running across the stage and twirling their heads in impossibly fast neck-jerking patterns. Amazingly, those playing the drums at the time often did some of the intricately choreographed movements. At times, the drummers were pounding the drums while jumping up into the air several feet, almost clearing the tops of the drums. Never once during these jumps did the beat of the drums falter. Somehow, the Drummers managed to keep perfect beat, even while airborne.

There were three types of drums in the performance. The largest were the “ingoma” drums, which were supplemented by the “amashako” drums, the “ibishikso” drums and one center drum, called the “inkiranya.” This center drum was played by all of the Drummers in turn throughout the performance and had the flag of Burundi painted on it. All of the drums were made from hollowed-out tree trunks and covered with animal skins.

One of the most stellar moments of the performance was when the Drummers entered immediately following intermission. They entered through the back of Leighton Concert Hall and made their way through the audience, pounding their drums in unison. Not only was their ability to balance the massive drums on their head intriguing, but it was amazing that they could keep time at all – the drums extended perhaps two to three feet in front of their head, making the end difficult to reach, much less play upon so skillfully.

The audience was entranced for the entire performance. The relative silence between and after the performance accentuated the power of the drums.

The Royal Drummers of Burundi truly gave meaning to the beloved Notre Dame phrase “shake down the thunder.” They brought the DPAC both to thunderous applause, and multiple standing ovations.