KINSHASA SYMPHONY – The art of Haydn and debrouillardise


Kinshasa Cellist © Vincent Boisot

Kinshasa Cellist © Vincent Boisot / Riva Press for Le Figaro Magazine.

Nathalie is a single-mum who struggles to clothe her little boy and pay the rent. She plays the flute and the sax. Josephine gets up at 4.30am every morning to sell omelettes at the market. She’s in the chorus. Papy is a part-time mechanic who also runs his own pharmacy. He plays the tuba. Josef is a freelance electrician, a kind of African version of the Robert de Niro character in the film ‘Brazil’. He also runs his own hair salon and plays the viola.

Nathalie, Josephine, Papy and Josef are adepts of the Congolese art of debrouillardise, a French word that means ‘getting by’, ‘making ends meet’ and ‘surviving’. Their lives are oddly schizophrenic. For most of the day they do whatever they must to hustle their daily bread in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, one of the biggest, noisiest and most dysfunctional cities on earth. Then in the early evening they set out on a journey that often takes several hours to go and rehearse with The Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa, the only all-black symphony orchestra in the world. There they find release from their daily cares. “When I sing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it takes me far away,” says one of the other singers in the choir. “I’m not here any more,” .

“They come because they’re passionate about music,” says Armand Diangienda, the man who founded the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbaguiste almost twenty years ago. “It gives them something more in terms of confidence, of feeling capable and of being able to contribute to a collective endeavour.”

If the musicians in the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste are masters of individual survival, the orchestra itself is an epic example of debrouillardise, of thinking the impossible and then just doing it. Armand Diangienda lost his job as a pilot when the Fokker F-27 he used to fly across the Congo crashed into the hills above the town of Goma in 1992, killing all 37 people on board. Luckily, he was on holiday at the time. Finding himself unemployed, he rallied some of the followers of his father’s church, the hugely popular Kimbanguiste Church, and created a symphony orchestra, a strange endeavour for a confirmed reggae fan who had only a passing interest in European classical music at the time.

“We told ourselves that creating a symphony orchestra would be great because the church already had a brass band, a flute orchestra, a guitar ensemble and a number of different choirs,” Armand tells me over a distorted phone line from Kinshasa. “I couldn’t read music but driven by my passion and with help from my friends I gradually learned.”

In the early days, instruments had to be borrowed or made from scratch by reverse engineering. Violin strings had to be concocted from bicycle brake wire. Hundreds of scores had to be copied out by hand. Arrangements to symphonic works by Mozart and Beethoven had to be deciphered by listening to the works on CD, over and over again. Music stands had to be cobbled together from old pieces of wood.

Despite attracting huge interest locally, the Orchestra remained a secret until two German film-makers, Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, made a film about it called Kinshasa Symphony, which was released in 2010. It’s one of the most beautiful and honest portrayals of the power of music and the human spirit that I’ve seen in ages.

Last year, the Orchestra travelled outside Africa for the first time, performing at the TED conference in California and later in Monaco with the Monaco Symphony Orchestra. CBS devoted a hour coverage to them and Peter Gabriel joined them for a gala soirée to raise funds for a music school in Kinshasa.

But that’s not all. Armand Diangienda is on his way to London to become an honorary member of London’s Royal Philharmonic Society, an accolade previously granted to the likes of Mendelssohn, Rossini, Wagner, Brahms and Stravinsky. “The day I was told I had tears in my eyes,” Diangienda says.

The fact that many Congolese regard Armand Diangienda as something of a living God has no doubt helped him to achieve the seemingly impossible. His grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, was a healer and preacher whose sermons instilled pride and self-belief in ordinary Congolese people and deep fear in their Belgian colonial masters. He died in 1951 after spending thirty years in prison. One of his most prophetic statements was “The black man will become white and the white man will become black.”

For Armand Diangienda however, performing western classical music on the banks of the Congo river has nothing to do with turning his back on his own African culture. “Everything we’re learning by playing classical music will allow us to enrich our own music as well and immortalise it by writing it down,” he says. Diangienda himself, and the orchestra’s first violinist Heritier Malumbi and bassoonist Balongi, have already composed several original symphonic works full of rich Congolese flavours.

“My grandfather claimed that to sing was to pray twice,” Diangienda says. “Music is already a form of spiritual wealth to us, the Kimbanguistes. But what inspires me even more is that my grandfather’s message was a universal one; a message of peace, of love, of reaching out for others and bringing people together.”

It was also a message about work, perseverance and self-respect. The stirring finale of Kinshasa Symphony sees the Orchestra performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on a large piece of waste ground in front of an ecstatic local crowd. The beauty, pride and common purpose that oozes from the performance make mincemeat of the clichés of chaos and hopelessness that burden the Congo. A small but growing group of cognoscenti already know that Kinshasa is one of the most culturally dynamic and creative cities on earth, and OSK only reinforce that conviction.

So here’s another prophecy: sometime in the future, in 30, 50 or a 100 years time, Kinshasa will rival the Paris of the 1920s or the London of the 1960s in terms of its impact on global culture. By then, by the grace of Simon Kimbangu himself, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste will be old and venerated and Armand Diangienda’s most cherished dreams will have come true.


Andy Morgan.  (c) 2013

First published in The Guardian – May 2013

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