Selamta Magazine

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Style + Culture

Sounds of Hope

Documentary film Kinshasa Symphony provides an intimate look at the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbaguiste.

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Photos courtesy of Kinshasa Symphony

The streets of Kinshasa, Africa’s third-largest city, are an un-choreographed dance of movement and sound. Vehicles weave between pedestrians. Commerce bellows from the marketplace. And jackhammers announce that the city’s reconstruction efforts are well underway.

Attune your ears, though, and you’ll hear sounds less expected: the trilling of a clarinet, the groan of a cello, the shimmering smash of percussion or a chorus of women’s voices. This is the music of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbaguiste, a musical ensemble with a story that’s as moving and as beautiful as the music itself.

It all started in 1994 when conductor Armand Diangienda, an out-of-work airline pilot, brought together a small group of 
would-be musicians to learn to play the violin. What he lacked in formal musical education he made up for in passion — a quality his pupils soon learned was contagious.

Conditions for teaching were far from ideal — five violins had to be shared among 12 students. Repairs were often necessary. But creativity is an elixir, and if violin strings broke, bicycle brake cables were used as replacements. When additional instruments were needed, wheel rims or scrap metal were adapted as needed.

The group’s size grew steadily by word of mouth. By 2008, when German filmmaker Claus Wischmann learned about the symphony, it was nearly 200 members strong. Fascinated, he contacted Martin Baer, a cinematographer and specialist in African studies. His idea? To film these musicians in action. “I still remember my response,” Baer says. “I told Claus, ‘That’s impossible. No [orchestra] could exist in one of the poorest countries in the world.’”

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Weeks later, however, Wischmann and Baer were in Kinshasa listening to notes of Beethoven’s Ninth rise from inside the corrugated green plastic fence of an 
open-air practice area. There, dozens of musicians, ranging from adolescent to elderly, were playing with the passion of trained professionals. Baer was deeply moved as he watched Diangienda conduct. “He has a dream,” Baer says, “and every day, he shows up to make it a reality.”

The same can be said of the orchestra’s musicians. Most are amateurs. Many learn from fellow students. Still others are self-taught — something they do by listening carefully to sounds and copying them.

Cellist Josephine Nsemba was taught to play by her now-husband, Albert Matubanza, who builds string instruments for the orchestra. Her days begin at 5 a.m. when she heads out the door to sell omelets at market, yet she never misses a practice. As she draws the bow across the strings, her face is transformed. She is entirely at one with the music.

The same is true of Nathalie Hahati, a single mother who can’t find an affordable place to live yet finds a way, little son in tow, to lift a flute to her lips each day for practice, right on cue.

These are only two of hundreds of similar stories. So, why does everyone show up? It has to do with a sense of community, of course. And creative expression. But most of all, perhaps, it is the power of music to transcend the everyday and allow, if only for a few hours, a connection to something larger than the self.

That said, the practices and concerts are hardly the stuff of lyrical perfection. Technical complications, including electrical outages, are commonplace. If it weren’t for Joseph Masunda Lutete — a violist who runs a hair salon by day and serves as the orchestra’s electrical and lighting expert at night — many events would be canceled. Says Baer of Lutete: “His enthusiasm, dedication and flexibility echo perfectly the qualities of the orchestra and, in my opinion, those of the Congolese population in general.”

The filmmakers quickly established a connection with Lutete, Diangienda and the other musicians. But rapport with Kinshasa residents took longer. With their loads of equipment, the European film team was viewed with suspicion.

“Even to get a street shot, we had to spend a long time with onlookers explaining what we were doing,” Baer says. The rewarding outcome, though, was that many of these people returned to watch; some even asking to be filmed in the streets or marketplace.

“They’d say, ‘If your film is about Congo and culture, not Congo and war, I want to be a part of it,’” Baer remembers.

Weeks of practice in poor conditions and endless feedback from Diangienda culminate when the symphony performs. As the women hike their homemade gowns to cross a muddy street and the suited men saunter toward the bandshell, the restless audience fidgets. When the concert begins, the crowd grows quiet. Verdi, Dvorak, Beethoven and Orff mingle with the stars. And the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbaguiste serenades a city of 8 million.

Bethany Lyttle is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work appears regularly in dozens of national and international publications.

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