Central Africa's Only Orchestra: Playing Beethoven in Kinshasa

By Elke Schmitter

Part 2: 'When I Sing, I'm Entirely Myself'

Now 400 men, women and children sit in front of a screen that has been cobbled together in a hall at the Hotel Venus in Kinshasa, waiting to see the European perspective on their work, finally about to watch the movie in which they play the leading roles. Director Wischmann and cameraman Baer stand to the side. For two years, they have had control over the pictures, sound and editing. Now they are handing control back to the Africans.

Five minutes into the film, the darkened hall is full of chuckles and laughter. The scene where Bahati, the flutist, views an apartment and the broker describes a hole in the concrete as a "parlor" triggers gales of laughter. Then the tone turns serious, as the musicians in the documentary attempt to answer the question of why they do what they do.

"When I sing, I'm entirely myself. I'm in a different world," singer Mireille Kinkina says in the film. Tenor Trésor Wamba calls Michael Jackson the world's greatest artist and the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti his role model. Wamba's dream is to have a major solo.

Wamba has an androgynous beauty, a dancer's flexibility and a talent for enthusiasm. For Wamba, as for most of the performers, classical music is also a way of experiencing religion, a spiritual experience of the same persuasive power discovered by monastic choirs in medieval Europe, when God and beauty were still one and the same. Daily practice also brings a sense of progress that translates to self-esteem and power. In a world ruled by arbitrariness and corruption, mastering a run of triplets is a small triumph.

Upping the Rent

In the end, Bahati chose not to move into the concrete hole that caused such amusement during the film screening. The apartment on Avenue Yassa, her home as of summer 2010, is her fourth address in the space of two years. She had to terminate her rental contract at one apartment during the first round of filming. After the white people with the camera came by, the landlord raised Bahati's rent by $20 (€15), now that he knew she had "rich friends."

She stayed with distant relatives until she found another apartment, then lost it as well, after the white filmmakers visited her again during the next round of filming. Bahati was blamed for a burglary the next day at a neighboring apartment. People said the thieves had obviously meant to target her place but had got the address wrong.

Bahati makes a living selling small wreaths of plastic flowers and table decorations for weddings. A bare light bulb hangs from her apartment's corrugated metal roof, water and latrines are down the street. The power supply seems to depend entirely on chance.

True Vocation

Conductor Armand Diangienda's home is a cool green, the color of his religion. This is where the improbable is brought to life -- the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, which has survived two attempted coups, various crises and a war.

Diangienda's grandfather Simon Kimbangu was a martyr in the fight against Belgian colonial powers and died after 30 years in prison. His prophecies and interpretation of the Bible provide the spiritual backbone of Kimbanguism, a powerful Christian church with more than 5 million followers in the Congo alone.

Diangienda himself was a pilot until he received his true vocation, when a plane he was supposed to have piloted crashed. From that point forward, Diangienda dedicated himself to religion and music. He leads his congregation, now split off from mainstream Kimbanguism, composes music and runs his own recording studio. Married to the daughter of an ambassador, multilingual and well traveled, Diangienda belongs to an upper class that lives amid Congo's poverty.

The day after the film screening, the musicians rehearse in Diangienda's courtyard, surrounded as usual by temperamental chickens. Instrument maker Albert Matubanza, who like everyone here is self-taught, checks a double bass that has been damaged by wood beetles with his professional touch and a sympathetic gaze. Electrician Joseph Lutete balances atop a utility pole, adjusting the power lines, before picking up his viola as the rehearsal begins. The program for today is Congolese folk music, arranged by Diangienda; it sounds a little as if Gershwin had been transplanted to Africa. But first, the orchestra plays Handel.

Diangienda's courtyard is a place that is both mundane and spiritual. Order and discipline reign here. It is also home to the intense striving that Simon Kimbangu's teachings say leads to redemption and to a state in which the African is a person, the equal of a European -- a state in which all suffering is at an end and promises are fulfilled at last.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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