Barefoot orchestra blows its own horn

By Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Saturday 11 December 2010 01:00

Kinshasa, the chaotic capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is used to just about every noise imaginable.

The daily soundtrack of survival in a city whose eight million people are among the poorest on the planet includes the rattling of buses, the furore of street hawkers and, occasionally, the efforts of a small choir to sing "Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium" to the strict rhythm of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The last entry is part of the "bizarre poetry" that drew German filmmaker Claus Wischmann to the extraordinary story of Central Africa's only symphony orchestra. Over the past 16 years, the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra has played to increasing acclaim despite the challenges of the mega-city, the need to fashion its own uniforms and often its own instruments. That acclaim is likely to become louder now that former concert pianist Wischmann's film, Kinshasa Symphony, made with cinematographer Martin Baer, is showing at this year's Berlin film festival.

It will place the spotlight on the extraordinary efforts of musicians such as Albert Matubanza, a guitarist who cannot play the violin or the cello but has somehow coached many of the string players, helping them to master their instruments and understand the music. He also makes instruments, and has just fashioned a double bass.

The band's other craftsmen have assembled a collection of frequently self-invented and self-made tools used for the running repairs to an orchestra that plays in uniquely challenging circumstances. In a city where many have to wake before first light and walk miles to find work, the notion of daily rehearsals that go long into the night is a major sacrifice.

Albert's wife, Joséphine Nsemba, gets up at 5am every day to sell omelettes at Kinshasa's biggest market. Her monthly income is just enough to pay the rent. Before they married, she was one of Albert's first cello pupils.

Joseph Masunda Lutete, an electrician and hairdresser, plays the viola and looks after the lighting, no small challenge in a city where power outages are epidemic. The orchestra, which has swollen to nearly 200 players, including the choir, was the brainchild of Armand Diangienda, a pilot and a self-taught musician. The grandson of the controversial anti-colonialist and "black prophet" Simon Kimbangu, whose sect still has 10 million followers from a population of 60 million, Diangienda attributes the orchestra's success to its religious outlook.

"The musicians didn't come here to earn a wage, but rather to glorify God," he told the AFP news agency. "Classical music is a way for us to express our joy and our woes." What began with four violins, a double bass and 10 amateur musicians from the Kimbanguist Church, has become a national phenomenon. At this year's 50th anniversary of independence, the orchestra was applauded by a crowd of 3,000 as they performed Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana".

Diangienda's motley band has attracted guest conductors from all over, fascinated by the determination of barefoot cellists and flautists who have made their instruments from PVC pipes during the DRC's regular violent bouts.

Publicity about about the orchestra was started by German soldiers in the UN peacekeeping force, who donated instruments. "In Africa, and even in the world, you'll never see an orchestra like ours, consisting entirely of blacks," Diangienda says. "It's an orchestra of amateurs, but it's not just any orchestra that can play Beethoven and Mozart."

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