Films on sound: Kinshasa Symphony

By Frances Morgan

The story of a music or theatre ensemble getting into shape for the big show is one with seemingly timeless appeal, whether that’s reality TV series The Choir or classic ‘backstage’ films like 42nd Street. There’s no doubt a similar narrative arc informs Kinshasa Symphony, a 2010 documentary about a Congolese amateur orchestra gearing up for a performance in their home city of Kinshasa – but there’s more to this portrait of communal music-making in what, to European eyes, are pretty adverse circumstances.

German filmmakers Martin Baer and Claus Wischmann follow the fortunes of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, a group of mixed-ability musicians and singers led by conductor Amand Diangienda as they prepare for an outdoor concert of classical ‘hits’, including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; the struggle to master this particular tricky piece forms the backbone of the film. Most of the musicians are self-taught, and all have busy lives outside the orchestra. While this isn’t so unusual for an amateur group anywhere in the world, acquiring an orchestral instrument in Kinshasa – the huge capital city of a country racked by colonialism, civil wars and dictatorships – can often mean building your own. A guitarist painstakingly constructs a double bass, while a violinist tells of a string shortage that meant bicycle gear cables were used instead; other members of the orchestra double up as instrument repairers and one violist/electrician has a crucial role fixing the lights, as Kinshasa's erratic electricity supply frequently cuts out.


 

Kinshasa Symphony has the potential to be a hard-luck story, a patronising gawp at those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s to Baer and Wischmann’s credit that it is, instead, a very measured and often funny and lyrical film. The issues of poverty, poor housing and healthcare that are part of the musicians’ everyday lives are not shied away from, yet, as Baer explains in an interview video, the achievement of the orchestra is a reminder that DR Congo's problems are not caused by deficiencies in its people. “The system of Kinshasa is working very badly, yet the system of the symphony orchestra – they manage. And that proved to us that it’s not the fault of those people: there’s something else going wrong.”

While music is a major part of Congolese life, the European-style orchestra is obviously anomalous: a young tenor in the choir is seen with his rap-loving friends, who gently rib him about his classical tastes; and first violinist Mayimbi Heritier is invited on local TV to explain musical terminology. However, it doesn’t operate entirely in isolation – it’s been going from strength to strength for fifteen years – and is heavily connected with the Kimbanguist Church, a Baptist church with around 5.5 million members. (There’s an intriguing glimpse of the Kimbanguist marching band services, which many of the orchestral players also take part in.) Baer and Wischmann try to put the ensemble in context of Kinshasan society – an admittedly hard task, and one that will necessarily leave a few questions unanswered for those unfamiliar with Central African society.

It’s the players’ relationship with their music – popular classics like Orff’s Carmina Burana and Ravel’s Bolero – and their instruments that translates the best. Cynicism about the value of these monolithic classical pieces is dispelled by the intent and enthusiasm with which the Congolese musicians tackle them; and the process of frustrated rehearsal followed by the buzz of performing to friends and family is both fascinating to watch (and listen to), and portrayed in a way that will resonate with anyone who’s ever been part of an amateur ensemble, whatever the setting.

The Flatpack film festival is screening Kinshasa Symphony on 27 March at mac, Birmingham. For details about the festival visit www.flatpackfestival.org.uk.