Central Africa's Only Orchestra: Playing Beethoven in Kinshasa

By Elke Schmitter

In the Congolese capital Kinshasa, just surviving is hard enough. But one group of people spends hours traveling across town to sit in a sweltering compound and practice Handel. They are members of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, Central Africa's only symphony orchestra.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, misery has a tender sound. It sounds like the voices of children at play, conversations between women, men talking in the half dark of Nathalie Bahati's apartment on Avenue Yassa. It sounds like the noises of wringing and pounding, the beat of bare feet on packed mud, the scraping of a spoon against metal. Bahati's son Dan plays with his toy cars, imitating their noises with his lips, as a friend hums Bahati's infant daughter Belmeande to sleep. Bahati found her daughter's name in a calendar of saints and liked its sound.

Bahati is 34 years old and a flutist, one of more than 200 musicians adding another layer to the sounds of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. In a polyphonic country of African rhythms and pop grooves, rumba and reggae, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste plays European classical music -- unbidden, unasked and untiring.

A new German documentary film, "Kinshasa Symphony," tells the story of the orchestra's most recent major performance and how it came to be. In the movie, which opened in German theaters on Thursday, filmmakers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer explore what moves people like Bahati, living in one of the world's poorest cities, to make a long, chaotic trip after a hard day of work to a stiflingly hot courtyard. There, they sit for hours, rehearsing Handel and Orff -- music that has neither tradition nor prestige in Congo, as foreign here as curling or golf.

The Sound of the City

Out on the main street, buses rattle by, dented and rusty, with openings where doors used to be. There are street-side waffle bakers, women carrying baskets of baguettes on their heads, men who balance 30 egg cartons and still have both hands free to make change. All call out their wares, and all have their own sound -- the man with the gas canister claps his rhythm, the craftsmen rattle pebbles in cardboard boxes, the shoe shiner beats the back of his brush against his footrest. It's an open-air lesson in the art of hearing. In a world almost devoid of visual advertisements, anyone who wants to sell something needs to make him or herself heard.

Around the corner, behind a bright green, head-high plastic screen, a European cacophony adds to the general commotion. Here, a small choir is tirelessly singing the difficult words "Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium" to the strict, driving rhythm of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, while four violinists break down a passage from Mozart, repeating five bars then starting over. These musicians rehearse here every single afternoon -- moving to a nearby hall when it rains -- except on Sundays, which are reserved for church services. The end result of all this will be an open-air concert, a performance conductor Armand Diangienda is anticipating with some trepidation -- he may not like what he hears. Or the audience may not like it.

Berlin-based director Claus Wischmann, 43, used to be a classical pianist. That may have been part of the reason why he was immediately convinced when Petra Schmitz, a producer at German public radio station RBB, came up with the idea of documenting the work of Central Africa's only symphony orchestra.

In 2006, Schmitz had heard from a soldier with the Bundeswehr, the German military, that peacekeeping forces deployed to Kinshasa wanted to take musical instruments with them. The city's amateur orchestra had been badly affected by looting during the latest round of unrest and was now playing on flutes made from pieces of PVC piping with holes drilled along the length. Wischmann and cinematographer Baer, 47, flew to Kinshasa and were immediately taken by the sounds of the city and of the orchestra, by the musicians' bravery and the bizarre poetry of the entire undertaking.

'My Soul Pants for You, O God'

Standing in a concrete hall, choir member Mireille Kinkina belts out a captivating rendition of "Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser, so schreit meine Seele, Gott, zu dir" ("As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God") from Psalm 42, as set to music by Felix Mendelssohn. A cellist walks barefoot through the mud, balancing his instrument above the puddles and high-voltage power cables on the ground. The bright reflection off a tuba is seen between smoldering piles of garbage and the words "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" ("All men become brothers") from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony written in chalk on a classroom blackboard in a slum.

All these irresistible scenes appear in "Kinshasa Symphony." The film doesn't try to lecture. Instead, it relies on the impressions made by images, music and the stories of the people involved.

The orchestra's history is mentioned only obliquely in "Kinshasa Symphony." Conductor Armand Diangienda, 46, started out about 16 years ago with four violins, a double bass and 10 amateur musicians from the Kimbanguist Church, a branch of Christianity originating in Congo. This year, the choir and orchestra performed Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and Orff's "Carmina Burana" at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's independence, applauded by an audience of 3,000.

The movie focuses on the daily lives and dreams of individual members and follows the group along the way to the big day of the anniversary concert. "Kinshasa Symphony" doesn't omit the hardships. An orchestra that replaces broken violin strings with bicycle brake cables and constructs a bell out of scrap metal will never sound exactly like the Berlin Philharmonic.

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