Kinshasa Symphony - A film by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer
Sound: PCM stereo, dts-HD-MA 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Russian
C MAJOR BLU-RAY 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 drama.
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
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.
An inspiring story, movingly told.