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Classical Congo

August 10, 2011

Kinshasa is home to Central Africa's only classical orchestra. The musicians, featured in a documentary now available on DVD, make many of their own instruments and have to cut rehearsals short when the power goes out.

Man playing the violin on the street; a scene from the film 'Kinshasa Symphony'
Not everyone in Kinshasa can understand the musicians' enthusiasm for classical musicImage: Claus Wischmann/Martin Baer/Edition Salzgeber

Kinshasa, home to about 10 million people, is the capital of one of the poorest countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The average Congolese earns just $300 a year. Nevertheless, around 200 musicians from the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste are committed to their passion for classical European music, like Haendel's arias, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

German documentary filmmakers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer featured the unique ensemble in "Kinshasa Symphony," which debuted at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and has since received numerous awards, including the 2011 German Film Prize for Best Documentary. Now the film has been released on DVD by Edition Salzgeber.

Don't lose confidence

In one scene, a man stands on a wooden mast six meters above the ground and juggles a pile of wires in order to fix the electricity. He sings while he works.

A woman playing the flute in Kinshasa; a scene from the film 'Kinshasa Symphony'
Many of the instruments are home-madeImage: Claus Wischmann/Martin Baer/Edition Salzgeber

The man is one of the 200 members of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, which rehearses in a run-down, one-storey house. Beethoven's famous Ninth Symphony is part of their repertoire, not only because of its beauty, but because it holds deeper significance for the musicians.

When DR Congo was fighting for its independence in 1960, Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary general of the UN at that time, asked the colonial power Belgium to withdraw its troops and compared the situation with Beethoven's opus.

"With the 'Ode to Joy,' Beethoven has given us a confession and a credo, which we can make our own," he had said. "We should never lose our confidence that the first movements will finally be followed by the fourth."

Difficult political situation

Martin Baer and Claus Wischmann's documentary accompanies five musicians from the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste to their rehearsals and throughout their daily life. Images speak for themselves in the film: dusty roads, dented cars, run-down facades - and happy children. Then there are the musicians who are completely dedicated to Beethoven, Dvorak and Verdi.

The pilot and amateur musician Armand Diangienda founded the orchestra in 1994 after he had been laid off by the airline he was working for. At the beginning, the serious political situation made it very difficult for him and the other members of the orchestra.

"We used to have many instruments - violins, contrabasses, guitars and flutes," remembered musician Albert Ndlanda Matubanza. "But we were mugged during the period of the many lootings. There was no work and hardly anything to eat. Everyone was fighting for their survival. There were enormous problems. Back then we started to build our instruments ourselves."

Making music with a brake cable

Man playing the tuba on a busy street in Kinshasa; a scene from the film 'Kinshasa Symphony'
Music as a meditation to the whirr of daily trafficImage: Claus Wischmann/Martin Baer/Edition Salzgeber

To get started, Matubanza said he even had to take his own bass apart so he could figure out how to make one. The film shows him going through Kinshasa collecting wood, cutting it and putting the pieces together.

The rim of a car is used to make the bell of a brass instrument because it makes a perfect D. And a larger trumpet is cut into a smaller one in order to create just the right sound.

Matubanza even turns to bicycles for spare parts. "We had many problems with the violins in the past. But if a string was broken, we used the cable brake of a bicycle to fix it," he explained.

Even the musicians' own friends think that they are a little bit crazy. Usually people in DR Congo listen to traditional Congolese music, or to the rap and hip-hop they know from American movies. Classical music is a very unusual passion in the central African country.

Escape from reality

The filmmakers succeed in presenting the orchestra as well as the living conditions in Kinshasa without over-emphasizing the impoverished circumstances.

Bear and Wischmann focus on the musicians, letting them tell about their trials, but keep the focus on the music that gives the artists the strength to deal with the many setbacks they face.

Flautist Natalie, for example, was thrown out of her flat because she was not able to pay the rent. Singer Mireille's life is equally challenging. But when she sings Beethoven, she enters into another world; she is able to sink completely into the music and forget everything else.

Dokumentarfilm über Kinshasa Symphony
Rhythmus ist alles - nicht nur in der traditionellen kongolesischen Musik. Es ist das einzige rein schwarz besetzte Symphonie-Orchester der Welt: Das "L'Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste" aus Kinshasa im Kongo. Seit 15 Jahren spielen hier klassikbegeisterte Amateure Beethoven, Bach und Mozart. Unter erschwerten Bedingungen, denn es gibt keine finanziellen Mittel, keinen Konzertsaal, manchmal auch keinen Strom - nur den Enthusiasmus der Beteiligten, den diese ungewöhnliche Dokumentation sehr schön einfängt. Zugeliefert durch Sabine Oelze. Copyright: Claus Wischmann und Martin Baer / Edition SalzgeberImage: Claus Wischmann/Martin Baer/Edition Salzgeber

Mireille and the other singers even learn the German texts so they can perform the music according to the original score.

Not for dancing

Often, the orchestra has to cut its rehearsals short when the electricity goes out and they don't have enough light. The local climate also poses difficulties for the instruments.

"Playing the Ninth Symphony is a difficult task for any orchestra," explains director Claus Wischmann, who is a musician himself. "But in this heat, with these simple instruments and in this unbelievable humidity, which makes the instruments go out of tune, (…) it is quite simply an incredible achievement to perform such a work under these circumstances."

"Kinshasa Symphony" is about the power music can give to people. It is about musicians who are regarded as crazy in their home country because they devote themselves to a type of music you cannot dance to. And it gets to the heart of resourceful, proud and continuously working protagonists, who see music as an art you can perfect indefinitely.

Author: Bernd Sobolla / ff

Editor: Kate Bowen