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Symphony in Kinshasa

May 30, 2011

Jamie and I had heard some rumors going around.

Supposedly, there’s a place in town where, above the din of daily life in a bustling city, you can hear the music of a grand symphonic orchestra.  It floats above car engines and street hawkers, above shoe-shine kids clack-clack-clacking glass bottles together as they walk down the street, above honking  taxis and their yelling drivers.  The strings and the woodwinds pull at your spirit, the timpani rattles your heart, emotions rise and fall with the voices of a full choir and you forget for a moment everything going on outside.  

Like a ghost or a reminder of back in the day when Kinshasa was a jewel of a modern African capital.

Was it an urban legend?  Could something like this really exist in today’s Kinshasa?

The answer: Yes, it most certainly does exist.  And it is awesome.

It is the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra.  See for yourself their amazingness…

The orchestra is organized by the Kimbanguist Church, a Christian religion founded in DRC with a significant following in several countries throughout the world.  The orchestra’s conductor is the godson of Simon Kimbangu, founder of the church. 

Kimbangu began to attract large crowds of followers when he embarked on a mission of preaching and miraculous healing of the sick in 1921.  Because he was a Congolese preacher and not European, the anti-colonialism sentiment of many Congolese at the time found an outlet in his teachings, which made the ruling Belgian authroity uncomfortable. 

Charged with inciting rebellion against the state, Kimbangu was imprisoned the last 30 years of his life- from 1921 until his death in 1951.  Though this didn’t stop his religion from flourishing.

A significant aspect of the religion is it’s deep connection with, and communication through, music.

The orchestra only gives full-on performances maybe once or twice a year.  But lucky for us, they allow and encourage people to come and sit in on their rehearsals, which is just what we did a few weeks ago with a few of our music-loving friends. 

Tuba player, photos from Kinshasa Symphony film

And there we found ourselves one evening on the other side of town, looking a little lost as we tried to figure out where this urban legend could possibly be housed.  A nice maman saw us confused, and introduced herself as Mimi (a good sign).  Turns out she was one of the singers in the choir and she told us to follow her.

We ducked away from the busy street during rush-hour traffic into the run-down courtyard of the Kimbanguist church, and were met with a sea of violins, cellos, and double basses, flutes and piccolos, a bassoon, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and tubas, a gleaming set of timpanis and various drums, and a full choir.  It was unreal.

The rehearsals take place pretty much every evening after the musicians and singers finish their day jobs (pharmacists, electricians, hairdressers, food sellers, etc.).  They are almost all self-taught or taught by each other. 

One big question that popped into my head, where in the world did all of these instruments come from?  It turns out that some of them are family heirlooms, having been well maintained and passed down through the years.  Some of the instruments had been donated to the orchestra by international music aficionados.  And some of the instruments, notably some of the stringed ones, here actually made here in Kinshasa by one of the musicians that we spoke with. 

Violin player, photo from Kinshasa Symphony film

And when they started playing, my eyes welled with tears.  While the music itself would have been enough for me to react this way, it was so much more.  It was the fact that this group even exists here in Kinshasa, with people so devoted to their art even when they may otherwise be struggling to make ends meet, innovatively bricoler-ing their classical instruments to make due with what they have, and intricately organizing the physics of sound to create something so perfect and so beautiful in the middle of a city- and country- whose most discernible attribute at the moment is utter chaos and corruption.

We’re not the only ones who were so moved by the group, both their story and their music. Despite our original disbelief, it’s not at all unknown on the Kinshasa cultural scene.  They’ve received international recognition and even have their own website.  Besides the documentary film above, BBC has written about them and they’ve been the muse for an incredible set of photos from a visiting photojournalist.

Kinshasa should be proud to host the only classical orchestra in all of central Africa… or at least, that’s the rumor that I heard.

Brass players donning concert attire for the big concert last year celebrating DRC's 50 years of independance

One Comment leave one →
  1. Aunt Melodee permalink
    June 18, 2011 5:40 pm

    What a wonderful and inspiring story, thank you for sharing!

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