Located in the abundant, grassy hillside, just over five miles from Burundi’s capital, Gitega, is the Gishora Drum Sanctuary. Burundi’s last independent ruler, King Mwami Mwezi IV Gisabo Bikata-Bijoga, founded the sanctuary in celebration of a victory over the rebellious chief Ntibirangwa in the second half of the 19th century. Since its founding, the Gishora Drum Sanctuary has been a place to practice and teach specific ritual drumming techniques.
Drumming in Burundi is an ancient practice that mixes combat-style dance, specific rhythms, religious rituals, epic poetry, all into one. Historically, drumming rituals were part of the enthronement of kings, agricultural sowing festivals, and funerals of Kings and Queens. The drums themselves have long been associated with royalty and specifically the monarchy.
All drums have a name and purpose. At the Gishora Drum Sanctuary, there are two important drums that have never been played—Ruciteme (“the one for whom we clear the forest”) and Murimirwa (“the one for whom we cultivate”). Both names reflect the importance of farming, and the king’s association with the earth’s fertility. The sanctuary also has other drums known as Ingendanyi, or “retinue,” which are still played today.
As a country comprised of many different clans, including the Abahanza, Abavumu, Abajiji, and Abashubi, the drums became a means to unite a diverse population across generations and families. A ritual dance performed with the royal drum (ingoma), was one way to unite the people and honor the royal family. The drums themselves are made using wood from sacred, rare trees, like umuvugangoma (Cordia africana), umurama (Bridelia atroviridis), and umusave (Markhamia lutea). It’s believed that when the drums are played, they invite the ancestors into the ritual and banish evil spirits.
Local boys and men, known as Abatimbowho descend from the ancient lineage of Abanyigisaka, have always run the sanctuary. They are the descendants of religious leaders who held senior positions within the royal court.
Burundi continues to foster the practice and ritual of drumming, and in 2007 the government passed a suite of laws and policies to protect the ancient art form. These laws include the protection of drum sanctuaries, like Gishora and other sites throughout the country. Today, members of the sanctuary participate in drumming sessions at the site as well as celebrations held on Burundi’s Independence Day (July 1) and other government ceremonies.