Despite its widespread poverty, Kinshasa, the capitol city of the Congo, remains a major cultural and intellectual center and is home to Central Africa’s only symphony orchestra. In Kinshasa Symphony, directed by Claus Wischmann, several dozen extremely committed musicians, arrangers, and performers collaborate to plan a major open-air concert for thousands of fans.
June 1, 2011, at 4:30 PM at SIFF Cinema
June 7, 2011, 7:00 PM at Neptune Theatre
“It may not be obvious, but there are African rhythms in Beethoven,” Kinshasa Symphony orchestra manager Albert Nlandu Matubanza says near the beginning of the documentary about the music he loves and helps bring to life. Those influences seem more than implied when the only all-black full orchestra in the world plays some of the most intense and passionate passages from the Ninth near the end of “Kinshasa Symphony.” It takes the mesmerizing movement back into the chaotic world the composer crafted it from, performed by regular people in the Congo struggling to make timeless, good music in the midst of struggle and poverty. For those few minutes of painfully prepared-for performance before the credits roll, all the toil of translation and practice and finger-blistering rehearsal, along with lean daily survival for the players, is redeemed by the blissed-out faces of the people from and near Kinshasa who came to hear and see it.
This documentary is made up of extraordinary people, playing unlikely music in the most economically devastated of surroundings; Kinshasa landlords don’t let too many people live in the near-gutted derelict residences they charge too much money for, but somehow people collect in them to practice, listen to music, take care of their children, and rest between working various day jobs. Nathalie Bahati is the daughter of a solider from neighboring Kisangani who helped deliver her to the township before he died; she plays flute with the Kinshasa Symphony and raises a daughter while pregnant with another child. Armand Diangienda was a pilot when he lost his job in 1994, and is now the conductor of the orchestra. He has never been to a conservatory — “inquisitive by nature,” he just fed on the energy and ideas when he saw people writing music.
The orchestra started with 12 youngsters and five violins, which the musicians would have to share as they practiced. The music seemed strange to me, made in the jungle, sounding so unlike the surroundings — but that’s part of the appeal for the musicians. “When I sing Beethoven with the symphony it takes me far, far away,” choir member Mireille Kinkina says, beaming. “I am not here anymore.” “Our playing is average, not tremendously good,” a violinist humbly asserts. “(But) when we’re working on our music, it’s like a staircase, you keep going up and up.” That hard work is done in spite of not always being able to replace broken strings with new ones, but “brake cables of old bicycles.” At some point the KS needed a new C trumpet, and made due with a bus wheel rim they could clang a “D” note from. There seems to be spiritual purpose in everything regarding the music — “singing is like playing twice over,” one choir person says. “Music is very important to us.”
Nearly ten million of the world’s poorest people live in this capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and sometimes the symphony orchestra has up to 200 members. Veteran director Claus Wischmann doesn’t flinch from showing all the bad trips and bum notes that come with preparing for a concert. A running story throughout is the creation of two double basses out of one piece of wood; as it is designed, sculpted, stringed and tuned, and used in the full performance at the end. Local dance halls had to be asked to turn down the prerecorded music they played so that the locals could hear the performance.
Kinshasa Symphony doesn’t end with the works by Orff and Verdi and others being interpreted for the overseas relatives of Colonialists who punished Simon Kimbangu for interpreting Scripture uniquely and prophesying and leading his people into their own state. The documentary is about Kinshasa and remains in Kinshasa, as tuba players who work as pharmacists, and all kinds of different ordinary people, play extraordinary music for each other. The origins of what that music means to the residents of Kinshasa is never explained, somewhat curiously; but the power in watching and hearing them assimilate it and give it to each other is astonishing to behold.