An Orchestral Visit in Kinshasa A Classic Case of Workshop

Members of the WDR Sinfonieorchester pass knowledge on to their counterparts in Kinshasa
Members of the WDR Sinfonieorchester pass knowledge on to their counterparts in Kinshasa | Photo: Martin van der Belen

At first, the musicians had to build their own instruments, but today the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste is an impressive amateur ensemble. The WDR Sinfonieorchester and the Goethe-Institut also played parts in the success story. A workshop report by Gitte Zschoch

“Keep your arm nice and loose, guide the bow very gently and with feeling.” Pierre-Alain Chamot takes plenty of time helping Brando Siamina polish up his technique. How should the bow be held? How fast do you draw it across the strings? How much pressure do you use and when? The two violinists are standing in the studio of the house of Armand Diangienda, the conductor and director of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK). The room is soundproofed with carpeting and fabric and crammed full with a piano and other instruments, with boxes and music stands. Daylight comes in from a door leading to the back yard.

Siamina begins again and again, tucking the violin under his chin and guiding the bow very loosely, but with control, over the strings. Siamina has been a member of the orchestra for three years. After attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, he dedicated himself to classical music. His one-on-one lessons with Chamot are very beneficial, he says, “It gives me time to work on things that usually are overlooked.”

This is not Chamot’s first visit to Kinshasa. He and four other colleagues are spending one week in the city, holding individual lessons daily at the headquarters of the orchestra in the neighbourhood of Ngiri-Ngiri, behind a filling station and a hardware market. Painted all over in green, the building and gate are noticeable from afar. “When we were here the first time in 2010, the musicians thought there was only one method of playing the violin,” Chamot relates. “But now they see that it can be done in very different ways.” He therefore works with each of the violinists on their own personal way of playing the violin. “The orchestra has made a forward leap. The third generation of musicians are getting very good. They begin playing at a young age and profit from the knowledge of their older colleagues. And they work very hard.”

A film with after-effects

This was made possible not only by the love of music and the perseverance and passion with which the only symphony orchestra in Central Africa rehearses three evenings each week. It was also helped along by the partnerships that the OSK has established with many international institutions. They have friends and supporters in the USA, in Monaco, England and also in Germany. The 2009 film Kinshasa Symphony by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer made the orchestra known beyond the city of Kinshasa.

It was this film that fascinated some of the musicians from the WDR Sinfonieorchester. “The orchestra happened to be in Germany when we saw the film,” says Christian Stach, contrabassist and the organizer of the exchange. “So we approached Armand Diangienda and proposed initiating a partnership.” That was five years ago and since then they have held in-depth workshops at least once a year. The Goethe-Institut also supports the exchange. Focal points were agreed upon with the orchestra: there were weaknesses among the woodwinds, so they asked that a bassoonist come along. No one was available from the WDR Sinfonieorchester so Gretha Tuls joined the travellers, a member of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.

The orchestra started out twenty years ago by mending and even building instruments. At the time, the orchestra actually consisted only of self-taught musicians and the founder and conductor, Armand Diangienda, is self-taught as well. He was originally trained as a pilot, but devoted himself to his extraordinary musical talent and, after starting out in a reggae band, founded the orchestra. Diangienda is also the grandson of the spiritual leader Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the Kimbanguist church. Diangienda is therefore not only the director of the orchestra, but also a spiritual leader.

Zum Fotoalbum Zum Fotoalbum auf Facebook | Copyright: Goethe-Institut The days of improvisation are long past. Today, the orchestra has only high-quality instruments and music stands thanks to a donation by the Goethe-Institut. “We don’t have much time to practice, we’re amateurs. So it’s always good when professional musicians offer lessons,” says Diangienda. In addition to violin and bassoon, this workshop is being held for viola, double bass and trumpet.

Class recital

The brass instruments have gathered on the veranda of the conductor’s spacious house. The group is practicing a piece for the recital on the last day of the workshop. “Try to listen to one another! And don’t slow down; the piece has to carry us away,” says Martin Griebl, who is part of the exchange this year for the first time. “It’s great fun to work with these musicians. What impresses me most is their passion; the tenacity that they have at the work. No one ever gives up, even if things aren’t going well. I’ve never seen anything like it at home.”

Koffi Wasolua, 26, is one of the horn players and has been a member of the orchestra for half of his life. “Martin practiced things with us that are otherwise neglected. For example how to shape the mouth when blowing; I’ve always spread my mouth too wide but that makes playing a lot harder.” Every Saturday he teaches the next generation of musicians. The orchestra has no lack of young talent. It has even produced composers. Héritier Mayimbi, a concertmaster and one of the founding members of the orchestra, composed pieces that the orchestra performs.

The final recital is held in the courtyard on the last day of the workshop. Among the audience are young and old, experienced and new members of the orchestra. All the seats are full a few days later at a concert held at the Halle de la Gombe, the large open-air venue of the Institut Français in Kinshasa. People are even sitting and standing on the walls.

Armand Diangienda never stops making plans. He dreams of founding a conservatory. “We have had so many inquiries from people of all ages who want to play classical music. But the house is already bursting at the seams. We need more space and a structure.” Of course, they also need sponsors. Diangienda has already initiated negotiations with the WDR Sinfonieorchester.