In Burundi, the beat goes on

The drum is an important symbol invested with deep spiritual meaning in this African nation.

Contrary to images many Americans have of Africa, in three years of reporting on the continent, I haven't seen any bare-breasted women in grass skirts – or heard all that many drums.

So, it was a surprise for photographer Mel Freeman and me to suddenly hear loud rhythmic booms recently in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.

It turned out to be the practice session of a top national drumming group – the Komeza Cultural Association. Such teams traditionally played for kings – and now compete at festivals.

The 15 or so teenage guys carried – on their heads – hollowed-out tree-trunk sections weighing 60 to 80 pounds. All beating together, it was like standing near a speaker at a rock concert: Booms reverberated in our rib cages.

Then individual dances began. Each member came out from the circle to do a shimmying dance – like American break dancers. The crowd cheered hardest for a handicapped guy who spun acrobatically on crutches.

"Once you've heard the drums," boasted group leader Eric Ndoricimpa quite rightly, "you'll never forget them."

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