BURUNDI: Les Maitres-Tambours du Burundi - Les Maitres-Tambours du Burundi
Known primarily for their show-stopping live act, these Burundian cultural icons struggle to transfer their palpable stage presence to the album format
The Maitres-Tambours du Burundi (or the Master Drummers of Burundi in English, though in the Anglosphere they are more commonly known as either the Royal Drummers of Burundi or the Drummers of Burundi) have a well-deserved reputation as a world-beating live act. So mesmerising is their live performance that it is one of the gigs that WOMAD co-founder Thomas Brooman cites as one of his key musical experiences that inspired him to go on to create the UK’s premier world music festival. They have worked with Joni Mitchell, Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as their music featuring in the acclaimed Werner Herzog arthouse classic Fitzcarraldo. What I’m getting at here is that the group have attained a large degree of success mainly off the back of their live shows, which are, I am told, spectacular.
“The Maitres-Tambours are keeping the traditions alive, by singing and performing the drumming folk tunes in shows that echo the ceremonies of the past.”
The group play giant drums carved out of trees and covered with animal hides named karyendas, and the karyenda has a special place in Burundian history. Believed to be a sacred object that represented fertility and rebirth, during the times of the Kings of Burundi, known as Mwamis, would listen to the beat of the drum and divine the rules of the land from its rhythms. Since the fall of the monarchy and lack of ceremonial processions which would have required the use of the karyendas, the drums have waned in popularity, though the Maitres-Tambours are keeping the traditions alive, by singing and performing the drumming folk tunes in shows that echo the ceremonies of the past. That is both their strength and the album’s failing.
The album itself is a 1982 release that was initially an EP, before being reissued as a full CD in the 1990s, and it sounds, ostensibly, like what a show of theirs might sound like. Coming in at just under 38 minutes, it does not outstay its welcome, though, as entertaining as it can be, I cannot help but feel this is just half an experience. There is chanting and drumming, which I have to say is not the most engaging thing when isolated on audio for 38 minutes. There’s clearly a lot of energy on display, and it does make me want to listen to them perform live, which I am sure is a far more exciting prospect, but the album itself, while interesting, is somewhat lacking. I would normally go through a few of the high or low points of the album I am reviewing, but here there almost seems to be no point. Each song is just as good or as bad as the previous one, it all depends on your tolerance or enjoyment of purely percussive music. The British film critic Mark Kermode is fond of joking that there is only one true film review, and that’s ‘it’s alright if you like that sort of thing’, and never has that been more applicable to an album than here. If you’re a drumming fanatic, you will probably enjoy this more than I did, but if your patience for percussion is lower than mine, then you’ll struggle. That said, there is of course an inherent value in the album, inasmuch as it is a cultural document of a Burundian heritage that is no longer widely practiced. The band have, since the 1960s, carried the torch for this traditional form of Burundian music, and it is a fascinating musical tradition that I am glad has found new life in the modern world. That said, it makes for less than compelling listening as an album. Nonetheless, on the odd occasion I do enjoy the album for what it is, a tantalising if frustrating taster of what the Maitres-Tambours du Burundi are like on a stage.