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CONGO: Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste

Written by Featured Organization on 16 April 2012.

The “Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste” has been in existence for fifteen years. Initially a few dozen music-loving amateurs shared the few instruments they had at their disposal. Rehearsals were organised in shifts so that everyone could have a turn. Today there are over two hundred musicians on the platform when the “OSK” gives a concert.

Most of them are still self-taught amateurs. Even for those fortunate enough to have trained for a profession and found a halfway regular job, everyday life in the metropolis of Kinshasa with its eight million citizens is a constant struggle for survival. For many the working day begins at six in the morning, frequently a great deal earlier for the ones who cannot afford to share a taxi and have to walk miles to get to their workplaces. Despite this they attend the rehearsals that go on until well into the night, practically every day. A staggering example of discipline and enthusiasm.

In the meantime some of the orchestra’s repair artists have a whole collection of self-devised and self-built tools that they need to mend instruments. Their methods are as unorthodox as they are effective. Other members of the orchestra make their concert attire themselves, procure the sheet music required and make sure that the children are fed and looked after during the long evening rehearsals.

Armand Diangienda is the founder and conductor of the OSK. He is the grandson of Simon Kimbangu, a martyr greatly revered in the Congo for opposing the Belgian colonists and establishing his own church: the Kimbanguists. Armand plays the cello and is also a composer: “Music often helps me to think straight and plan my life,” he says. “And even though the rehearsals are often uphill work with little immediately appreciable progress, making music together is a compensation for lots of problems.”

Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the third-largest city in Africa. Almost ten million people live here and they number among the poorest inhabitants on this planet. Kinshasa is the home of Central Africa’s one and only symphony orchestra

Two hundred orchestral musicians are playing Beethoven’s Ninth – Freude schöner Götterfunken. A power cut strikes just a few bars before the last movement. Problems like this are the least of the worries facing the only symphony orchestra in the Congo. In the 15 years of its existence, the musicians have survived two putsches, various crises and a war. But concentration on the music and hopes for a better future keep them going. Kinshasa Symphony is a study of people in one of the world’s most chaotic cities doing their best to maintain one of the most complex systems of joint human endeavour: a symphony orchestra. The film is about the Congo, the people in Kinshasa and the power of music.

One of the musicians is Albert Matubanza. He is a guitarist, he cannot play the violin or the cello. But he has coached many of the string players, helping them to master their instruments and understand the music. At present he is making a new double bass for the orchestra. In the meantime, other craftsmen in the band have assembled a collection of frequently self-invented and self-made tools enabling them to repair anything that goes wrong with the instruments. Both the men and the women make their own suits and dresses to wear at public performances, they procure the sheet music required and make sure the children are supervised during the long evening rehearsals.

Most members of the orchestra are self-taught amateurs. Even for those fortunate enough to have vocational qualifications and a more or less regular job, everyday life in this megacity (population 8 million) is a battle for survival. For many the working day begins at 6 a.m., earlier still for those who cannot afford public transport and have to walk miles to get to work. But the rehearsals go on until well into the night – and there are rehearsals almost every day.

Joséphine Nsemba has to get up at 5 a.m. Then she sets off to sell omelettes at Kinshasa’s biggest market. Her monthly income is just enough to pay the rent. Business is tough because cheap eggs imported from Brazil and the Netherlands are pulling the prices down. When work is over, she goes straight to rehearsal. She was one of Albert’s first cello pupils. Now they are married. Her eight-year-old son Armand has been ill for a long time. Despite the enormous expense involved, Albert and Joséphine finally decide in favour of an operation.

Joseph Masunda Lutete is an electrician and hairdresser. In the orchestra he plays the viola and looks after the lighting. On the by no means rare occasions when the lights suddenly go out during rehearsals, Joseph is the man of the moment. In a bid for independence from the vagaries of the electricity supply in Kinshasa, he has bought a long-life battery-operated shaver for his hairdressing salon. Flautist Nathalie Bahati is looking for a new apartment for herself and her little son. Not an easy job in a teeming city like Kinshasa if you don’t have much money to spare.

Armand Diangienda is the conductor and founder of the orchestra. The trained pilot is the grandson of Simon Kimbangu, a martyr much revered in the Congo for his spirited opposition to the Belgian colonists and for the establishment of the Kimbanguist religion named after him. Armand’s grandfather entrusted him with the mission of founding an orchestra. Initially, a few dozen enthusiasts shared the few instruments the orchestra had at its disposal. To ensure that everyone had a turn, the rehearsals took place in several shifts. Today there are two hundred musicians on stage when the “Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste” gives one of its concerts.

The orchestra is planning a major open-air concert to mark the anniversary of independence for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An audience of several thousand is expected to attend. Very few of them have any experience of classical music. The programme includes Beethoven’s Ninth, Orff’s Carmina Burana and works by Dvorak and Verdi. Armand Diangienda is fully aware that the trickier passages do not sound very convincing yet. The choir is having trouble getting the notes right and pronouncing the German text. And the day of the concert is getting closer all the time …

‘Kinshasa Symphony, a documentary film about the only symphony orchestra in central Africa, shows that the need for music and artistic expression transcends chaos and adversity Filmmakers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer tell the inspirational story of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, a musical ensemble founded 15 years ago by self-trained conductor Armand Diangienda who named the group after his grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, a revered Congolese martyr who opposed the Belgian colonists The film depicts the discipline and enthusiasm of the orchestra’s members, many of whom must struggle for survival on a daily basis in the harsh surroundings of Kinshasa, a city of eight million inhabitants who are among the poorest in the world.’

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