The Karyenda was the main traditional symbol of Burundi and its mwami (kings). It had semidivine status. The mwami was said to interpret the messages of the beatings of the Karyenda and interpret them into rules for the kingdom. When Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962, the Karyenda was the symbol for the national flag (now replaced once the republic was established). Traditionally the most important folk songs and dances were performed to extol the virtues of the kingship. Unfortunately, since the fall of the monarchy in 1966 (and particularly after a massacre of Hutus in 1972), such cultural expressions have waned. An big festival was the annual sorghum festival (umuganuro), which was a huge display of pomp, festivities, and dances for the royal court. The second most important drum was the rukinzo. It accompanied the mwami wherever he went.
As sacred objects, the drums were much more than simple musical instruments. They were used for rituals such as the umuganuro, or for special circumstances. Major events for the king were announced through the drums, such a royal coronation, funeral, and weddings. The beating of the drums also signalised certain rites, such as when the mwami rose in the morning or was going to sleep, or marking a special occassion at the court.
The drums were normally kept in drum sanctuaries. These were a tight network of mythical high places. They were a centre of political and religious power in precolonial Burundi. The sanctuaries were guarded mainly by Hutu families, and they alone, with the king's consent, were allowed to manufacture, play, and keep the drums and bring them to the court for an occasion. They were called Abatimbo, meaning in Kirundi drummers "who hit hard". A sacred drum was enthroned in each sanctuary, guarded by attendants, some ingendanyi drums (minor drums), and a set of drums that played for the main drums.
Some of the main sanctuaries for the drums were in:
- Gishora (hill), not far from Gitega,
- the Higiro hill, also not far from Gitega,
- Magamba hill and in
Drums had various names, such as "dispenser of peace" or "lady of the land".
The Drums, despite all upheavals, have remained instruments that are both revered and still popular. The old families who were wardens for the drums have tried to keep their ancient tradition alive. Some have managed to have an international outreach, such as in the recording by L. Ndoricimpa and C. Guillet, Les tambours du Burundi (The drums of Burundi), issued in 1983. For more information please look under Master Drummers of Burundi