by Patricia Campbell
I hadn’t expected to meet Burundi musicians in the Anglo city of Perth, Australia, but it happened that we landed in the midst of these East African refugees one golden, sunny afternoon in February 2010. There they were, some 30 of them assembled at ASseTTs–the Center for Assisting Torture and Trauma Survivors (http://www.asetts.org.au/): dads coming in after a day’s work, moms with babies held by cloths wrapped onto their backs, adolescent girls and boys in ultracool headgear of colorful bandanas, and a band of guitars, a keyboard and a drum kit at the back of the room. For most of two hours, the Burundis sang, swayed, played and musically made their marks for Robert Faulkner and me.
We had come to listen as part of early efforts to set up research on “migrating songs” and the role of singing in maintaining, re-creating and negotiating identity among recent immigrants in their new communities. The research team consisted of Jane Davidson and Andrea Emberly, colleagues with Robert at the University of Western Australia, and me, all of us intent on knowing more about singing’s potential for social integration and the re-creation of cultural heritage in places far from home. We were collaborating on an investigation of recent-migration sites, wondering how and why musical artifacts (chiefly, songs) transform as people migrate and relocate across national boundaries. Someone had mentioned to us that a group of “Africans” were making music at ASseTTs every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 p.m., and so we stumbled our way over to the center. We found that ASseTTs is a community development program in Perth where refugees from war-torn nations, and especially survivors of torture and trauma, are helped in restoring their mental health and in building on their individual and group strengths, resources and skills.
Master Drummers of Burundi: Remembering the the musicians featured on Joni Mitchell’s 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns when I learned that we would visit the Burundi-Australians, I had in mind the thumping of cross rhythms. The tradition of the Master Drummers of Burundi has been around for centuries, using drums made from hollowed tree trunks covered with animal skins for coronations and for births and funerals of the Burundian royal courts. I imagined lots of single-headed drums, which look like a crosses between congas and djembes, and drummers with hands flattened to their drumheads, slapping away.
Burundi Band and Peace Choir: However, the Burundis of Perth took us to a different musical zone altogether. Their sound was soulful group singing, harmonized in standard pan-African I-IV-V pop style, choral and chordal, with occasional solo segments in call-response format, complemented by ostinato-like guitar rhythms. The singers were in perpetual motion, their whole bodies moving forward and back, heads bobbing, arms extended up, down and sideways and expressive of the texts they sang. (Hear them at www.burundipeacechoir.com/about/.) Their songs were self-composed praise songs in Twa language (one of three mother-tongues in the country, along with Tutsi and Hutu), songs of thanksgiving (that they had made it to Australia from hard times in Burundi), and prayers of hope that others could share their good fortune of making it out of wartime and into places of peace.
They had known extremely hard times, coming from ethnic conflict, political unrest and massive devastation. Like Rwanda, Burundi was the scene of growing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi, with the Hutus intent on annihilating all the Tutsis in the early 1970s. The Tutsi-led military responded by targeting the Hutus, and a civil war erupted in the early 1990s, which amounted to the death of at least a half-million Burundis. Those who could escaped to refugee camps in Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire, where many more died of dysentery and cholera.
The Twa-speaking Burundi of Perth had started to make music in their refugee camp in Tanzania. Their leader, Jean Phillippe, believed that if he could get people singing, dancing and playing, they would overcome the trauma of the war (and the squalor of the refugee camps). They made guitars from wood and the wire spokes of abandoned bicycles; they made amplifiers from clay bowls. They played when they could, even daily, and traveled to different parts of the refugee camp and to churches to perform their praise songs. People listened, danced and sang along. They found strength in the songs, and they created happy memories. Their expressions were an exemplar of the principles of music as community, music as therapy and music as education for the young who could acquire the values inherent in the song texts and participate in the joyful music-making of their Burundi-Australian community.
The power of song: The Burundis of Perth proved music to be critical to their own well-being in that they could gather twice weekly at the center, where they could express themselves freely and engage with their community. ASseTTs provided little more than a space for their meetings but ensured that community development could happen. One Burundi woman explained her involvement in music (through her brother, who translated): “Our dream is to sing songs, to make our dreams so that everybody can hear it—Australia, different states, even different countries.” Group leader Jean Phillippe clarified their long-term goal: “If the choir has the means to do so, we would like to help our people back home in Africa: sing, make money and send it home for those of our families who need it.” These Burundi-Australians, like others in similar straits before them, had found music to be a means of sustaining and strengthening themselves, even as they flash-forward to how they might help those they left behind in their first home in the forests and towns of Burundi.