Somerville — When the lights go down in the theater, you hear them faintly, as if arriving slowly from a far away village, singing a call and response to the measured beat of the drum. The entrance onstage by the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi is almost ritualistic, a slow procession of high kick steps. The performers, traditionally clad in red, green, and white, balance heavy, waist-high log drums on their heads as they move methodically to form a ceremonial crescent of 10 drums.
But after this somber opening to the acclaimed troupe’s World Music/CRASHarts presentation at the Somerville Theatre Friday night, the party began, and really never let up. And this one was one to wake the neighbors, a nearly nonstop barrage of thundering drums, chants, yips, and yells driven by an infectious exuberance and seemingly inexhaustible energy. It’s easy to see why this troupe helped spark the first WOMAD festival in 1982.
The Burundi drummers take turns playing the central flag-painted “Inkiranya” drum, which establishes the musical sequences. Timekeepers set a continuous beat for syncopated rhythms among the ensemble, playing heads and sides of the drums. They maintain remarkable rhythmic precision and steadiness during changing tempi and patterns that shift on a dime.
But the performers don’t just stand and play — they are dancing all the while, moving side to side, their pale wood mallets creating a blur in the fast passages. In the slower sections, the stick work gets more ornate as drummers twirl and coil their mallets, elbows raised high.
In addition, extra performers enter periodically to dance around the central drum, sometimes solo, other times in pairs, and here’s where the show gets really fun. These guys play to the audience with charming insouciant grins and a face-front flourish of the arms, begging adulation after every virtuosic display. Most of the movement evolves from squat, low-weighted slides, hitch-kicks, skips and runs, torsos rippling sinuously, arms churning and windmilling. Heads roll feverishly as if necks are made of rubber. Out of nowhere, the dancers jump three to four feet in the air, legs split, folded under or straight out in front, bent over, chins to knees. One drums behind his back then sets up a rhythm with one mallet while vigorously encircling his neck with the other, frequently switching directions. The gesture, repeated frequently in the show, evokes beheading and apparently references devout, sacrificial-level loyalty.
The show reflects centuries-old traditions in the tiny East Africa country, considered one of the poorest in the world. In ancient Burundi, the drums were sacred objects used only for exceptional rituals. Today, the drums are used for social ceremonies, but are no less revered, meticulously crafted from a rare tree and stored in special sanctuaries. They still reflect a powerful relationship to nature and the Burundi culture, reflected in the titles of some of the production’s 32 numbers: “The Sacrifice,” “The Unity,” and my personal favorite, “Rhythm Played When You Receive a Cow as a Present.”
In truth, however, they all run together; Western ears and eyes may feel taxed with the repetition after a while. For one of the evening’s high spots, the troupe stops the drum beat altogether and sings a simple tune in three-part harmony. I would have welcomed more such respites, but you have to admire the sheer stamina of these men. In the end, they leave as they entered, drumming as they process off into the wings, the beat slowly fading. You get the sense they will carry on all the way to the next village.