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Rare appearance by African group at this year’s Folkmoot

Seventy kilos is a lot of weight to hold on your head. It’s about 150 pounds. That’s like carrying a welterweight boxer balanced atop your skull. Or a gargantuan African drum.

It’s no mean feat, but Patrick Muvunyi, Bienvenu Katungeko and their fellow performers have been doing it with smiles on for the last week on stages across Western North Carolina.

They’re from Burundi, a speck of a country in east central Africa, and they’re here for Folkmoot, the international music and dance festival hosted annually in Haywood County.

Muvunyi and Katungeko are dancers and singers, but mainly they’re drummers. They brought with them from Burundi half a dozen massive, handmade drums that vibrate floors and can be heard three blocks away.

With them are 18 other performers — dancers and musicians — and though their performance is an impressive accomplishment, the hoops they jumped through to get here are equally notable.

For the Burundians, the process started more than a year ago, when an invitation from Folkmoot arrived.

They live in the capital city, Bujumbura, of a country of roughly 10 million. There are 60 members in the group, ranging in age from young teenagers into the 30s and beyond.

And when they decided they wanted to take Folkmoot up on its offer, then the long and arduous visa and fundraising process began.

Groups that perform at the festival are given room, board and transportation once they arrive in America. But getting here is entirely up to them. And for many groups, those costs can run into the tens of thousands, according to Folkmoot Executive Director Karen Babcock.

The costs aren’t the only hurdles facing potential performers. They’ve also got to run the visa gauntlet with the Department of Homeland Security. That can take months, and in the end, not every group is allowed to make the trip.

For the Burundians, the tickets were more than $2,000 each. And how did they raise the funds?

“It was very expensive,” said Katungeko. “Every week, we go to play at ceremonies, like weddings and official ceremonies.”

And for each ceremony, each wedding where they heralded the happy couple’s arrival, a fee went into the group’s bank account. And if you play for enough weddings, enough ceremonies, eventually you can pay your way to America.

Of the 60 members of their group, only 20 are represented this year at Folkmoot. They had planned to bring 29, but two couldn’t come because of sickness.

The other seven didn’t make it through the visa process, which, said Muvunyi, took quite a long time indeed, including interviews at the U.S. Embassy and proof that the festival really wanted them to come.

They traveled further than any group to get to Folkmoot this year — more than 7,500 miles — and they are one of the few African groups to make an appearance over the last several years.

Like many who come to the festival, their music and dance are professional quality, but they do it because they love it.

Muvunyi and Katungeko are both university students, studying business management and public health, respectively.

Katungeko started with the group 12 years ago, when he was 16. He was busy with school and soccer, but some friends in his neighborhood were in this traditional drum group, so he thought he’d give it a try.

Twelve years later, he’s still drumming with the troupe.

In addition to the financial burden and long visa process, performing at Folkmoot takes a great deal of time and preparation.

These drummers and dancers practice three times a week to stay on their game, which is a pretty taxing proposition given the extreme strength it takes to play such large drums for 20 and 30 minutes at a stretch.

“We have to eat a lot,” jokes Muvunyi, laying into a late-night meal after a long day of practice and performances.

In Burundi, the drum has a revered place in history and society. And for a country that was tormented by colonization and unrest throughout the 20th century, keeping the drumming tradition alive is an important part of preserving and propagating their ancient culture and heritage.

Though this is their first time in the States, the group has before ventured out to share their unique musical style on other continents.

In 2006, some members went to Canada to perform, and they’ve traveled through Western Europe with drums in tow.

So although getting here isn’t a cheap or simple proposition, Katungeko said they’d happily find a way to return if Folkmoot ever wanted them back.

They love playing, and so far, they said, whatever they paid to play here has been a worthwhile investment they’d happily repeat.

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