Burundian song, Hutu rhythms, and Watusi dance music in the sounds of the ikembe, stem flute, fiddle, wooden and stick zithers, and drums, are captured on this recording from 1974, just before three decades of hostilities would decimate the population and displace nearly a million inhabitants.
Originally released in 1974
In order to provide a historical context for this recording, the liner notes that accompanied its original release have been reprinted in full below. The text has not been edited to reflect changes in general cultural perceptions or specific factual information that may have occurred since then.
Since this album’s initial release in 1974, Burundi’s first post-colonial president was deposed by a fellow Tutsi officer, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, who was in turn overthrown by another Tutsi officer, Major Pierre Buyoya in 1987. Soon after, despite the new leader’s attempts to quell ethnic tensions through reforms and power-sharing arrangements, renewed ethnic fighting led to the death of some 20,000 Hutu. The 1990s brought Burundi’s first democratic elections and two successive but equally brief Hutu presidencies, each of which ended in tragedy, inciting a civil war between the Tutsi-controlled army and Hutu rebels that continues still. Neighboring countries have sought to lessen ethnic hostility through sanctions and peace accords, with little success. More than three decades of fighting have resulted in the death of an estimated 250,000 Burundians and the displacement of more than 800,000 mostly Hutu men, women and children.
Burundi, located in the heart of central Africa, is an overcrowded, rugged, mountainous country where eking out an existence has never been easy; it is also a land steeped in tradition and courtly ritual. Burundians traditionally regarded their king, or mwami, as a fertility priest, whose health and sexual prowess they linked symbolically with the fertility of their land. Indigenous religious beliefs and practices have persisted, even though 65% of the population converted to Catholicism under colonial rule.
For centuries, Burundi was ruled by aristocrats of the legendary Watusi – more correctly, the Batutsi, or Tutsi – warriors, renowned for their graceful dancing. The vast majority of Burundi’s populace, however, belong to the Hutu ethnic group, which comprises 85% of the population. In contrast to the tall, slender Watusi, the Hutu tend to be short in stature and less martial; the Watusi live on a diet of cow’s milk curdled with blood drawn from their lyre-horned cattle, while the Hutu dietary staple is beans. During the days of the monarchy, the aristocratic Watusi subjugated the Hutu majority, forcing them to provide service and tribute – often in the form of beer brewed from fermented bananas or sorghum. And in group gatherings, drinking large quantities of this beer, Burundians sought to forget the harshness of their existence through singing. Most lyrics were composed extemporaneously, for the people of Burundi are natural poets. On state occasions, or when a major dignitary was being entertained, skilled Hutu drummers in flowing red togas beat out rhythms in honor of these guests. When the king or a provincial chief visited, he often would bring along his own drummers. Watusi youths known as intore reenacted famous battle and victory scenes in dance form, gracefully leaping and shaking their heads, a short spear balanced delicately between three fingers in each hand.
Burundi was conquered by the Germans at the end of the 19th century; it came under Belgian control during World War I. Until 1948, Belgium administered the territory as part of a League of Nations Mandate and after that as a United Nations Trusteeship Territory. In July 1962, the Kingdom of Burundi regained independence, but its existence since then has been scarred by increased ethnic hostility between the ruling Watusi minority and the Hutu majority. When Burundi’s predominantly Watusi army overthrew the monarchy in 1966, Captain Michel Micombero – a Tutsi from southern Burundi – seized authority (there were no elections) and became the first president of the new republic. In many ways, he is treated by the people like the mwami he deposed: the first lines in several of the songs on this record extol his virtues, and two songs are almost entirely devoted to his glorification.
Despite the seemingly carefree lyrics and vitality of the music heard here, Burundi’s recent history has been tragic. The ethnic fighting that broke out again in 1972 and 1973 resulted in the death of more than 200,000 Burundians, and more than 80,000 Hutu have fled the country. The selections and artists represented in this recording are from northwest Burundi, an area heavily inhabited by Hutu, and many of these performers may well have been among the victims of this latest strife.
- WARREN WEINSTEIN, 1974
Recorded in Burundi by Giuseppe Coter
Originally released in 1974 (H-72057)
Licensed from Vedette Records, Cologno Monzese (Milano), Italy
Coordinator: Teresa Sterne
Re-mastered by Robert C. Ludwig at Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland, ME
Design by Doyle Partners
Cover Photography: © Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos
1994. Rwanda. Burundi refugees at the Mgwanza refugee camp, following the 1993 wave of inter-ethnic violence.