First Night: Return of the Burundi boys

Drummers of Burundi Royal Festival Hall London
THE DRUMMERS of Burundi's jubilant display of power and skill indicated none of the hardships they have endured at home and in getting here.

Six members perished in 1993's conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis; economic sanctions and civil unrest have prevented any touring since.

The now 12-strong troupe, which is comprised of both tribes, had to trek from their central African state through Rwanda to Uganda and back again simply to obtain UK visas; flights out are few and far between. Last night's exuberant combination of religious gravity and unfettered comedy was both a testament to their tenacity and to a musical heritage that stretches back centuries.

In this, their first UK tour in 10 years, the red, green and white toga'd Drummers showed why western musicians from Adam Ant to Joni Mitchell and Malcolm McLaren have been inspired by their thunderous polyrhythms. The Drummers supported the Clash at Brixton Academy in 1984; the presence of a besuited Joe Strummer as last night's MC realigned them to an aesthetic more rock 'n' roll than world music curios.

With their great log drums, or ingomas arranged in a semi-circle, the Drummershollowed calls and responses while performing complex syncopations, pounding a booming resonance on the skins and producing a harsh clacking by striking the sides with sticks.

A larger decorated ceremonial drum, the inkiranya, provided the focal point from which the drummers took their cues.

Singly or in pairs, they leapt forward with breathtaking athleticism to sing, gyrate and hammer out changing rhythms, apparently battling for possession of this centre piece via a series of mock fights, war-like stomping and frenzied throat-slitting gestures.

With dancing being as important as the percussion itself, the Drummers' jerky movements and sudden and nimble leaps were interspersed with paeans to familiar animals and wildlife.

After one particular bird dance, its symbolism made all the more obvious by its donning of a plumed head-dress, the troop ducked down behind their instruments so that only the drums were visible: for these musical ambassadors, the drums, not the drummers, are the thing.

The group returns to Britain next month.