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Drumming up a sense of unity: making Burundian music in Ireland

Joseph Nditendereza: making Burundian music in IrelandForced to leave Burundi on account of the civil war, Joseph Nditendereza and his family are now resident in Ireland. He has brought other Burundians together in a band that performs with traditional drums. It’s been a great success. Interview by Dermot Roantree.


How often does your team of drummers meet up?

We usually meet every Saturday in Cooksfield, near High Street, at the back of the Dominican Church. In fact we meet in a Primary School, St Audeon’s. We were lucky to get the place. I contacted the principal of the school and he was happy to let us meet there. It was very difficult to find a place where we could store the drums. We keep them in a store room beside the PE hall, and move them into the hall when we practise. How many of you are there?

There are between twelve and fifteen of us, all from Burundi.

Did you all know each other in Burundi or did you only come to know each other in Ireland?

We came to know each other in Ireland. There is only a very small Burundian community in Ireland – only about fifty people. They all intend to stay in Ireland, but they want to preserve their cultural identity. The drums are a very good way of meeting up with the others. Also, you know about the problems between tribes which we had in Burundi and Rwanda – well, when you are drumming you don’t think about these problems.

Are all your drummers from the same tribe?

No. From different tribes, but we don’t ask other Burundians which tribe they come from. We find it irrelevant. It’s better to get together and have fun, and to find a kind of unity in the Burundian community here.

So how did the drumming group get going?

I had the idea of starting it, so I discussed the idea with Fr Frank Sammon and he was very enthusiastic about the project. We began talking about it in 2004, but it took a long time to get it going. I got to know Frank through Fr Leonard Moloney, the principal in Belvedere. He put me in contact with him. So, Frank was very helpful in getting the funds to buy the drums and to transport them to Ireland. The drums are made from a very special tree – you can’t use just any tree.

I got some sponsorship from the Credit Union in the airport, but Frank got most of the money. Then we put the money together and ordered the drums. It was quite difficult to organise because communication between here and Burundi is very bad. And it was very expensive. They were sent by plane, and when they arrived at the airport I had to pay duties to get them out of there. We first brought the drums to Frank’s house, then we brought them to Ozanam House on Gardiner Street. After about three months we had to find a definitive place for them. I got in touch with the principal in St Audoen’s. I knew him because when I first arrived in Ireland I worked in the school – I was helping the students with computer programmes – and both my son and my daughter had studied there. He’s a very kind man, a very good man. He gave us a room to practise in. Sometimes we have to organise the transport of the drummers. Seven or eight of them come in from the country. Most of them are still in reception centres and they don’t have money for the train to get here. Every Saturday they come from Cork, Galway, Waterford, and elsewhere.

Have you ambitions for your group? Do you want to record? Would you like to join up with other groups who play, say, traditional African music?

Our plan is first of all to have the group working well, starting with the Burundian community because most of them know about drumming. Some of them are very good drummers, others just learned the drums here, but all of them know a lot about drumming and what it means. We want to make our drumming known in the Irish community, especially in the schools – the schools are very interesting. We tend to liaise with different Irish cultural groups, but also with African groups. In fact, though, the kind of drumming in Burundi is very different from drumming in West Africa. In West Africa they use tam-tams, and they drum with their hands. In Burundi, we drum with sticks. I don’t know if there is anywhere else that where they have the same type of drumming as Burundi. It’s quite a unique way of drumming. For that reason, Burundians are often invited to different countries, and they play professionally all over Europe, America, Japan, and so on.

There seems to be a terrific renaissance of African music these days, maybe led by West African countries such as Mali and Nigeria. Is Burundi part of this phenomenon at all?

I think the renaissance of Burundian music and culture is more internal. It’s happening now in Burundi iteself. It’s not yet very publicised outside the country, apart from some of the professional groups which are invited to different countries. The reason for this, I think, is that Burundi is quite forgotten, mostly due to the long civil war in the country, from 1993 to 2002. Things are calm now. We have a democratic government. Actually, the former leader of the rebels won the election and is now the president. The process is quite democratic. Unfortunately, it will be a long journey to get a full recovery, because so much was destroyed during the war. Now, for example, with the torrential rains there are a lot of problems with malnutrition and so on.

Do you think Burundi is being forgotten even by aid groups now?

Yes, I think so. If you consider, for example, aid groups going to Rwanda or Mozambique, there is nothing to compare with this happening in Burundi.

And what about missionaries? Have they contributed to Burundi in a substantial way?

Yes. Especially Catholic priests from Belgium and France. Maybe because of the language barrier, there are very few English-speaking priests. Children learn English at school, and it is becoming more important now. But still there are not too many people who speak it. The best college was the Jesuit college in Burundi. It was built just before independence. It’s called College de Saint Esprit. It was run by Belgian Jesuits. It was originally built by the Belgian government, because they had done very little in the education area, and they wanted to make it look as if they’d done something.

The Burundians who have come here: do they intend to gain skills and return to Burundi or are they here to stay? Are they looking for a better life outside the country?

They are mostly looking for a better life, and I think everybody has been affected by the conflict in Burundi. Nearly every one of the drummers has lost family members. Most of them didn’t want to leave Burundi. They’re very proud of the country – life was good there; the people aren’t very rich but they are happy with their small farms, their land produces enough food – there was no hunger before the war. People were happy to live simple lives, and they didn’t intend to leave the country, as for example many people in West Africa did. Burundi was very different.

Was it a big decision for you to leave Burundi?

Yes, it was. I was affected by the war. They killed my brother. And there were some people that wanted to kill me and my other brothers, so I had to leave. I have been lucky. Myself and my family have already got permanent residence in Ireland. And some of my friends in the group also have residence here already, so we are very grateful to Ireland and to Irish people. Those who are still in reception centres are hopeful of getting residence, but it’s very hard for them. Sometimes they are distressed and don’t know what to do. When we meet up, it’s a relief for them. They can forget about their troubles, at least for a few hours.

Do you think, possibly, that people in countries such as Ireland can sometimes be ungenerous in accommodating refugees – acting as if, say, the larger world was something from which they had to protect themselves rather that something they ought to protect?

Ireland has been very good to us. But countries have to be generous especially to other countries where there are wars or other genuine reasons for people to seek asylum – countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, where the situation has really been terrible. Life doesn’t have much value when there is a war on. I remember, for example, around the time I left for Ireland there were around two thousand people killed in one night – something incredible!

Now that the civil war in Burundi is over, do you want to go back? Would it still be dangerous for you?

Well, you still have the trauma…

Would you even visit? Have you been back since you left?

Yes, I have been back once. But my kids are pretty much Irish, the way they think, and so on. They are very well integrated, they have a lot of friends. And the school system here is very good. I imagine it would be hard for them to adapt to life in Burundi. As for me, I feel more for my country. I grew up in Burundi and my connections with it are much stronger than my children’s. I had a good job there – I was in marketing, working for Heineken, marketing beer and soft drinks. I never thought I would go to Europe, I was happy, but because of the war everything changed. Here I work in administration. It was impossible to get work in marketing when I came here eight years ago, especially as I had poor English.

Presumably, the drumming is good for you too, reconnecting with Burundian people…

Yes, yes. I knew that the act of drumming would be very good, because in Burundi there is always drumming in the stadiums on big days – we have an Independence Day, for example. What impressed me was the number of European people coming to see the drummers. They didn’t come because they cared about the politics, they came for the drummers. It was so amazing. So I thought, if we tried to organize the same here, people will like it. And I think they will. We are still training a lot, but we have done some gigs already. We did a gig with Amnesty International in the Temple Bar just before Christmas, and we’ve performed a few times for school children.

That must have been fun!

Oh, yes! They were so happy. They were amazed, and they kept shouting “We want more, we want more!” It was very good for us, because kids don’t lie, they’re so spontaneous and just say how they feel. Two of my kids go to the school and they were there that day. And at the end of the drumming session we invited the kids to come up and drum and dance. Very nice!

Have you any plans to record your music?

Well, we have a stable group now, so we could start thinking of recording CDs. The group is performing well. Mostly we play traditional drumming, but we could also produce our own. The drumming is really powerful. If we went to, say, Croke Park, we could play to the whole stadium and we wouldn’t need any amplification. And that’s just with the twelve of us playing a drum each. It’s so powerful. The group is growing now, because we have about six women who are joining in. Traditionally the women don’t drum, but they can dance and sing, and it sounds great.

Do your children show any interest in Burundian culture?

Yes. My son is one of the drummers. He’s 17 years old, and he’s a very good drummer. He was very small when we left Burundi, so he doesn’t have strong memories of the country. And I have a daughter who is 10, and she dances with the women’s group. It’s interesting for me to see them getting involved in Burundian culture. Like my son – he’s too obsessed with rugby, which he plays with Belvedere, but he loves joining in with the drumming group now. Some of the others in the group are also young and have studied in Ireland. Others are much older. It’s a good mix. And it means that the group will continue – even become stronger. We could even make a group of twenty. There aren’t many new people coming here from Burundi, because it is so hard now to get residence here, but some of the people who are already here might join the team.

NOTE ON BURUNDI: Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in October 1993 after only 100 days in office, triggering widespread ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions. Over 200,000 Burundians perished during the conflict that spanned almost a dozen years. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians were internally displaced or became refugees in neighboring countries. An internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu rebels in 2003 paved the way for a transition process that led to an integrated defense force, established a new constitution in 2005, and elected a majority Hutu government in 2005. The new government, led by President Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a South African brokered ceasefire with the country’s last rebel group in September of 2006 but still faces many challenges.The area of Burundi is about two-fifths that of Ireland. It has a population of eight million. – from World Fact Book