Since colonial times, Congolese music has enjoyed a worldwide reputation, flooding radio stations both with original works those and influenced by Congolese rhythms and musical styles. At the same time, following a tendency visible throughout the continent, many Congolese filmmakers got their start in the cinema world with shorts or features, both fiction and documentary, that focused on the music of their country or communities of origin.
Kinshasa Symphony (2010) could be included in a parallel movement of foreign filmmakers who have been visiting the country to witness its musical vibrancy firsthand. Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer’s documentary is now available on DVD, after a successful appearance in international film festivals. The Democratic Republic of Congo has gone through many changes in the last few years; nevertheless, its dynamic cultural production remains a crucial characteristic of the country. The increasing migration from the countryside into the city, due to economic factors or with the purpose of escaping ethnic conflicts, has made Kinshasa a chaotic metropolis. Together with Brazzaville, located on the other shore of the Congo River, it forms the third biggest conurbation in Africa, just after Cairo and Lagos, with a population of more than 10 million people and growing social inequalities. The Congolese capital is a vibrant artistic center, with such esteemed institutions as the National Institute for the Arts (INA) and a myriad of artists and critics working in multiple disciplines. No doubt this joint work has helped in the shaping of Kinshasa as a reference point for artistic production, both nationally and internationally.
Many directors from within and outside the country, with Mweze Ngangura at the fore, have portrayed the cultural vitality of the city since Congo—still known at the time as Zaire—declared its independence from Belgium in 1960.
In their own words, the film’s German producers were led to twenty-first century Kinshasa “to offer a new image of Congo.” The primary recipient of this European film with African themes and protagonists is the Western audience at the fashionable film festivals around the planet. Kinshasa Symphony is the result of a collaboration between Claus Wischmann, responsible for more than forty television screenplays about classical music, and Martin Baer, a longtime lover of Africa and the cameraman for the film. It is an emotional story for all audiences, attractive without wounding sensibilities or raising uncomfortable political, social, or economic questions. The interviews highlighting the selflessness of the orchestra members, fast cutting, and a succession of urban scenarios that manage not to fall into a distancing contemplation, but instead provoke emotional engagement, are the strategies used by the filmmakers to present the Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa as a microcosm of the ferment of the present day Congolese metropolis and its inhabitants. This orchestra, still the only one playing classical music in Central Africa, was founded in 1994 by its director Armand Diangiend, an unemployed pilot and grandson of the founder of the kinganguist church. With the help of Albert Matubanza, he has managed to keep it alive. The impossibility of acquiring new instruments in the country forced the latter to become a makeshift builder of musical instruments, learning the trade as he went along to provide for the orchestra’s needs. This task, born of necessity, is now his life’s calling.
Immersed in the chaos of the city, the Symphonic Orchestra of Kinshasa is a diverse amateur group that finds inspiration in composers such as Händel, Beethoven, Mozart or Verdi to transcend the penury, joy, and contradictions of local reality. Kinshasa is a metropolis in constant movement, a paradigm of unbridled African urban growth, as well as the hometown of 200 musicians looking for shelter in “the only symphonic orchestra in the world composed entirely of blacks”, as one of them says. Along with footage of rehearsals and a final concert, the filmmakers present the group through selected stories of some of its members. We get to know a young tenor trying to turn his rap-fan friends on to classical music; an autodidact violinist who explains on a local television station what an octave is, and plays a musical fragment right afterward, surprising everybody with his mastery; a violinist and a flautist, both devoted mothers and hard workers, stealing time from their sleep to practice; Joseph Masunda, an ingenious electrician, hairdresser and violinist, who saves the rehearsals from excessive interruption by blackouts; a young girl from the choir who struggles with her roommate to get time to practice because she only feels “complete” while singing with the orchestra.
The uniqueness of the orchestra and the personal narratives of the protagonists are an easy way to pander to international audiences without entering into analytical complexities. They mix interviews with local footage and picturesque shots of the orchestra members over a disorganized backdrop of the city, and with the constant murmur of Beethoven’s Ninth as soundtrack, Kinshasa Symphony reaches its goal of showing “a new Congo”. We hope future films will help to build a more accurate and complex representation of the country.
Living in the West, we are used to assimilating and analyzing foreign music with our own theoretical tools; the present documentary has managed to turn that tendency upside down, showing the reception of classical music in Kinshasa, where everyday instruments and musicians can only carry on through constant reinvention. Once more, we understand that in art, dialogue is the only way to richness and creativity, and that communication between human beings is an indispensable weapon to demolish monolithic ideas, confront ideological inflexibility, and bring an end to the curse of closed circuits of cultural production.