Music and musical instruments of Burundi

General description

Burundi - one of the ancient kingdoms of Central Africa, to the east of Lake Tanganyika - is now a republic of 6,373,002 inhabitants (according to a 2002 estimate) with an approximate surface area of 27,834 km2 and a population density of 228.96 per km2. Its language, Kirundi, is part of the Bantu family of languages and is very similar to Kinyarwanda and Giha, the languages spoken in the ancient neighbouring kingdoms of Rwanda and Buha respectively. Buha is now part of the Republic of Tanzania and Rwanda has become an independent republic.

Apart from Rwanda and Tanzania, Burundi is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its orographic relief is dominated by Mount Heha, with an elevation of 2,760 metres. The country's main conurbations are Gitega, Bururi, Rumonge and Ngozi.

Burundi is inhabited by three population groups: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa. The main activities in which these three groups have traditionally been engaged have always been agriculture (millet, sorghum, maize, sweet potatoes, beans, bananas, …) and stock rearing (cattle: the ankole breed of cow; small livestock: goats, sheep, chickens and, more recently, pigs). However, a certain number of trades and secondary production activities are also practised, such as beekeeping, pottery, woodworking, metalworking, basketry and weaving, hunting, jewel-making, etc. Most of these professions are liable to be lost following the introduction of western-made products which are often more practical and effective.

Cultural field

a) Cultural variation

It is generally admitted that the culture of central Burundi (Muramvya, Ngozi and Gitega territories) is representative of the culture of the whole country but major variations are seen in the peripheral territories: the Rusizi plain and the Imbo region in the west, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); Buragane and the Moso in the south and south-west respectively, bordering Tanzania. These variations exist in other regions, but are less pronounced than in the four areas mentioned, and are due to the proportions of a particular population group over another and to each group's way of life (agriculture, livestock, pottery or other trade, …).

b) The arts

The cultural aspects associated with the arts in Burundi are numerous, rich and varied. Here, we discuss the artistic field of music and dance.


Every Murundi is a musician at heart, according to Ntahokaja in his article entitled La musique des Barundi (The music of the Barundi), (in: Grands Lacs, 1948-1949, 4-5-6: 45-49). His soul is a taut string which vibrates at the slightest breeze. He sings for all events of life, joyful or sad. The Barundi possess a broad repertoire of songs adapted to all states of mind and all circumstances of life. Joyful songs and sad songs - the latter fewer in number - enhance family and official gatherings, accompany certain rituals and ceremonies and are associated with certain trades. These include the following:

1) uruvyino singing (imvyino in the plural) (listen)

Ntahokaja speaks of uruvyino singing as "mass singing", practised among most of the population. At family celebrations, for example, the singing rises spontaneously from among those present. As the beer glasses are emptied and hearts open, the people are seized by a rousing, lively and cheerful melody. The imvyino style is that of verse and refrain. A (male or female) soloist sings the verses, which are improvisational and have colourful, charming words. The audience, singing in chorus, takes up the refrain - a short, highly rhythmic phrase which is always the same within one song. This song is often accompanied by hand-clapping and possibly also dancing.

The imvyino dance songs may also be categorized depending on the circumstances of their performance.


2) ururirimbo singing (indirimbo in the plural) (listen)

The songs known by this name are sung by a single man or by a small group. Ururirimbo singing is that which best translates calm, subtle feelings. Its themes are prolific and its text is always constructed in poetic form. Ntahokaja observes a resemblance between ururirimbo singing and plainchant: clarity of melody and absence of chromaticism.

Within this category of indirimbo singing, the following classification may be proposed:

3) Instrumental music

Among the types described above, some are accompanied by a musical instrument, whether this be the dance song or the type known as ururirimbo. Some instruments may produce instrumental music, not accompanied by voice, while others may be played in a group or as solo instruments.

The main musical instruments are: