“If you listen carefully you can hear the African rhythms in Beethoven,” says Armand Diangienda. (Image: Vincent Boisot)
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – The Symphony of Joy – is the sound of happiness captured. It is an everlasting moment of bliss. The second chair violins and cellos set the background, the rich sound building hesitantly. Then the first violin breaks free, with the orchestra, building an unstoppable wave as the themes crash into each other, big and loud and unstable.
Facing the orchestra, marking the tempo, a look of pure joy on his face, is the conductor, Armand Diangienda. The fourth movement begins, repeating the themes of the first three. Instruments transition to a solo baritone, the lone singer joined by the chorus. Their voices rise, bouncing off the green walls of the courtyard. And then silence, murmurs of irritation as the lights go out and the power dies, and generators are repaired by the light of mobile phones.
The 9th is a remarkable and – at the time of its composition – revolutionary ode to hope, joy and brotherhood. Listening to it is inspiring and one of the most rousing musical experiences one can have in a concert hall. But this performance is not in a European concert hall; it is taking place in the courtyard of musical director, composer and conductor Diangienda in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), performed by Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK). It is the only symphony orchestra in central Africa and the only all-black orchestra in the world. Even though it has been performing for two decades, it was only recently that anyone outside of Kinshasa learned of its existence.
An unassuming building, its hallways and courtyard are filled with self-taught classical musicians playing patched-up or made-from-scratch instruments. Instead of the local soukous or ndombolo music, the OSK plays the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelsohn and Stravinsky. “Here in our country, music is listened to so that you can dance. It is very rare that it is listened to just for meditation, but I think classical music takes you really far,” Diangienda told a German documentary crew in 2010.
Sounds of the city
In the bustling cacophony of Kinshasa, even as the sun goes down, the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste competes with the sounds of the city: the blaring hooters, the stamp of feet on the hardened mud, and the voices of pedestrians just on the other side of the wall.
For the 200-strong orchestra and choir this nightly ritual of practice is an escape from the grinding poverty of their daily lives. Josephine, raising a son on her own, rises at 4.30am every day to sell omelettes in the local market. In the evening, she turns up religiously for rehearsals that go on for hours. “When I sing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it takes me far away. When I turn from mother to musician I feel I have left the planet. I am not in the Congo anymore,” she says.
“They come because they’re passionate about music,” says Diangienda, the man who founded the OSK 20 years ago. “It gives them something more in terms of confidence, of feeling capable and of being able to contribute to a collective endeavour.”
Watch Peter Gabriel perform his song “In Your Eyes” with the OSK:
Diangienda comes from a line of men considered heroes of the nation. As a descendant of Simon Kimbangu, the healer and religious leader who died in 1951, he is considered a living god. Imprisoned for sedition by the Belgian colonial government, Kimbangu spent 30 years in jail for founding the Kimbanguist Church, an African interpretation of the dominant Roman Catholic Church. After his death, Simon Kimbangu Kiangani, his son and Diangienda’s father, took the reins of the church and grew it into the largest in the DRC.
Colonial Kinshasa was a place of dreams and fascination for Europeans. It was a violent city where European ideas of Africa became real and African dreams of a cultured west fed off each other. Kimbangu’s message and warning that one day “the black man will become white and the white man will become black” earned him a death sentence.
In large parts of Africa, classical music is still considered a foreign import, a vestige of colonialism. When he founded the orchestra in 1994 it was the biggest misconception Diangienda had to fight. He argued instead that music was universal, that classical music was an expression of the culture of the DRC. And with his lineage, the former airline pilot found people willing to listen to his argument.
For adherents of the church founded by his grandfather, The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth (the Kimbanguist Church), music is a form of spiritual wealth. “My grandfather claimed that to sing was to pray twice. But what inspires me even more is that my grandfather’s message was a universal one, a message of peace, of love, of reaching out for others and bringing people together.”
With no sheet music and no one trained to play the instruments he did not have, Diangienda recruited 12 members of his father’s church to his project. He found five violins, in need of repair, and began spreading the gospel of classical music in Kinshasa. “We rehearsed at night to accommodate people’s working hours. One person played for 20 minutes, then gave the instrument to the next person for their turn.”
In the German documentary, Kinshasa Symphony, a young violinist describes the first time he picked up the instrument. Unsure of what he has in his hands, he says: “It was such joy to touch the instrument. I broke strings. I couldn’t get music out of it.” It is not a challenge from which he shies away. Like the choir which learned German for a performance of Carmina Burana, he embraces the test. In the end, he adds: “I dream of doing great things with my music.”
Débrouillardise is a French word that means “making ends meet” or “surviving”; it’s a word Diangienda uses to describe the lives of his musicians –men and women who struggle and hustle daily to make ends meet. But it is a spirit that has helped to grow the orchestra. Instruments that could not be borrowed had to be reverse engineered and built by a self-taught instrument maker. Bicycle brake wire became violin strings. Scores were copied out by hand after being deciphered through hours of listening to CDs. “I couldn’t read music, but driven by my passion, and with help from my friends, I gradually learned. We are like my grandfather who thought the impossible and just did it.”
The self-devised techniques to build and repair the orchestras instruments are unorthodox and effective. (Image: Vincent Boisot)
Congolese and classical mash up
Over 20 years Diangienda has strayed from the path of Brahms and Beethoven. For the 50th anniversary of Congo independence the orchestra mixed Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Orff’s Carmina Burana with a selection of Congolese folk music in a performance in front of 3 000 appreciative Congolese. Arranged by Diangienda, it sounded like Gershwin with an African beat.
“Everything we’re learning by playing classical music allows us to enrich our own music as well and immortalise it by writing it down,” Diangienda says. He and the orchestra’s first violinist, Heritier Malumbi, and bassoonist, Balongi, have already composed several symphonic works full of rich Congolese flavours.
Last year was the biggest year for the OSK. The orchestra completed its first international tour, with performances in New York, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. And Diangienda received an honour once bestowed on the composers Brahms, Rossini, Stravinsky and Wagner when he became an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
He has now broken ground for a musical academy in Kinshasa. He hopes that the children who come after will help spread the DRC’s rich culture through classical music. “That is my dream, to create a musical school where kids and adults will learn how to write music and play instruments. They’ll do symphonies or sonatas which will be classical but completely African.”