A film by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer
Sound: PCM stereo, dts-HD-MA 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean,
C MAJOR 709004
[95:00 film; 10:00 bonus]
Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, is a sprawling city of ten
million. It lies at the heart of a country blighted by civil
strife, the latest of which - the so-called Second Congo War
that began in 1998 - has killed more than five million people.
And despite a fragile peace, the violence continues in the east
of the country. Against this backdrop, the very existence of
the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK) is nothing short
of a miracle. Composed of largely self-taught musicians and
singers it’s an extraordinary band of human beings who
travel miles to get to rehearsals, buy their own sheet music
and - when necessary - make their own instruments.
And that’s just for starters. Even more astonishing is
the enthusiasm and good humour that infuses this project. There
are problems aplenty, not least an intermittent supply of electricity,
but then one of the orchestra’s viola players, Joseph
Lutete, is also a skilled electrician and will down his instrument
to fix the generator. As for the orchestra manager Albert Matubanza,
whose supply of instruments was long since looted, he’s
reduced to touring scrap yards for off-cuts to make a double
bass. And from the outset the snippets of O fortuna, Va pensiero
and the rehearsals for the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth
are all played and sung in a way that’s uniquely African.
There’s even an improvised Boléro-in-the-bush
that had me laughing out loud at the ingenuity and persistence
of these musicians.
Film-makers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer have opted for a
very simple, self-revealing narrative style, in which the orchestra
members introduce themselves to camera in the most natural and
disarming way. Flautist Nathalie Bahati speaks candidly of her
unexpected pregnancy, absent boyfriend and unscrupulous landlord,
all part of a daunting daily grind that’s borne with remarkable
fortitude and grace. And then there’s the OSK’s
founder, Armand Diangienda, a former pilot who lost his job
and formed the orchestra in 1994. He and the ongoing rehearsals
for that Beethoven finale - the words of which are especially
poignant in this context - form the central thread of this fascinating
Professional musicians are well-known for their gripes and grumbles,
and I daresay they wouldn’t be too keen to rehearse in
the cramped, run-down spaces their African counterparts have
to endure. And if we have to work hard to persuade others of
the pleasures of classical music spare a thought for the young
man sent out into the city’s decaying suburbs - built
for rich Belgians - to deliver leaflets for the upcoming concert.
The local ‘pop’ that peppers the soundtrack and
the incomprehension of the populace is countered by good humour
and high spirits all round. This is intercut with shots of everyday
life in the city and Diangienda cajoling his motley choir in
the Ode to joy. The music is always recognisable, but
rhythms are distinctly African, blessed with an age-old fluidity
and cadence that’s very moving indeed.
And as anyone familiar with Africa will know, public transport
is a fraught affair. Like everyone else Lutete and his fellow
musicians have to squeeze on to a packed van or mini-bus to
get to rehearsals. It’s frustrating, but it’s endured
with none of the exasperation and hostility one might expect.
This is a daily rhythm of its own, and everyone seems willing
enough to sway with it. Even when Lutete practises amidst the
crowds - one of several rather wistful vignettes in the film
- his viola takes on a timbre all of its own, both songful and
searching; and that pretty much sums up the sound of this orchestra
as a whole, whose tuning-up at a rehearsal may be wayward but
it still has that frisson we all know so well.
This is a well-crafted film, and there’s a palpable tension
as all the strands are pulled together for the final concert.
And speaking of strands, fiddlers will be aghast to hear that
replacement strings are sometimes made from bicycle brake cables.
Oh, you need a trumpet bell? Try this wheel rim from a mini-bus.
This really is a scratch orchestra, and there’s
a delightful sequence in which two singers struggle with Schiller’s
texts, coming up with the strangest pronunciations. As always,
there’s a passion, a fierce hunger, that conquers all.
And it’s easy to understand the sentiments of one of the
singers, for whom the music is a passport - albeit temporary
- to somewhere ‘far away’.
But escaping the problems of daily life isn’t always that
easy. Cello player Joséphine Nsemba - who makes and sells
omelettes from a market stall - has to struggle with the price
of eggs and, as a parent, wrestle with fears for her young son
as he’s operated on in a terribly basic hospital. Even
the doughty Diangienda comes close to despondency when rehearsing
the choir, which is in deep disarray. This is the rough, unforgiving
milieu in which these people find themselves, and for
a few seconds the mask slips and desperation shows.
That said, the big night arrives - it takes place outside, under
floodlights - with the Ode to joy and O fortuna.
And how does it go? Well, I suggest you buy this disc and find
out. The bonus track has four short items - Joséphine
and Albert make music, Joseph at the market, Héritier
teaches, and Chantal on her daily bread run. They afford a glimpse
of private moments, all captured in a relaxed, non-intrusive
way. As for the editing, it’s wonderfully poetic at times
- a smile, a frown, a look of quiet contentment - the final
frames especially so.
Any grumbles? Not really, although the narrative does falter
a little towards the end. That said, the leisurely, unforced
pace of this documentary is a pleasure from start to finish.
And yes, many issues are left untouched but, to be fair, this
isn’t a multi-part television series with plenty of time
to tease and probe. As for Martin Baer’s cinematography,
it’s always crisp and elegant, colours vibrant and images
sharp; most welcome, though, is the refreshing lack of voice-overs
or overt editorialising, so the film never becomes a political
statement or polemic.
An inspiring story, movingly told.