Mendelssohn; Wagner; Brahms; Stravinsky; and now: Diangienda. The names of honorary members of the Royal Philharmonic Society read as a list of some of the greats in Western Classical Music history, composers whose impact and legend still live on today. Now, joining their ranks is the creator of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, Diangienda Wabasolele Armand, a native of DR Congo who has nurtured his orchestra from a grassroots effort to a global phenomenon that is the subject of the award-winning documentary Kinshasa Symphony.
Considering his lineage, the ambition and drive of Diangienda Wabasolele Armand comes as little surprise. His Grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, founded the Kimbanguist Church in 1921, in reaction to the dominant Roman Catholicism in the country which was implemented under tyrannical Belgian colonialism. After his imprisonment for founding the church, his son — Armand’s father — Joseph Diangienda Kuntima, then succeeded as its leader, and under his watch the church grew to become one of only three recognised Christian sects in the country, along with being a member of the World Council of Churches since 1969. Coming from such a family, Armand was clearly no stranger to greatness; nor to going against the grain. Still, when Diangienda started out in his career, flying a Fokker F-27 plane across the Congo, there was little indication of where his life would end up, as cellist, composer, musical director and founding member of the only all-black orchestra in the world.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Congolese music scene was dominated bySoukous or Lingala (so called for the language it is sung in), along with new movement,ndombolo, which was just starting to gain momentum. With little exposure to classical music, the young pilot entertained only a mild interest in the European composers of old; indeed, he much preferred reggae. It was only when he found himself unemployed that Armand dedicated himself fully to the oeuvre, and to the foundation of an organisation that might bring an alternative sound to his native country. Previously, in 1985, Joseph had asked his son to form a classical music ensemble as part of his church, and the result, a group comprised of guitarists, wind instruments and singers, became the KBB or Kimbanguist Big Band. Yet while the group enjoyed — and continue to enjoy — success in their country, the popular variety music they played did not fulfil the ambitions of Joseph. Thus, when the plane Armand flew crashed (luckily, when he was not behind the controls), he found himself without a job, and so was determined to focus his attentions on his father’s dreams of creating a classical orchestra.
The Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK)now has over 200 members, yet when Armand started the project, it was from decidedly more humble beginnings. With only twelve amateur musicians and five instruments, rehearsals took place late at night to accommodate members’ working hours, and involved one person playing for twenty minutes, then giving the instrument to the next person for their turn. Things taken for granted in western musical education, such as access to instruments, or even the ability to obtain sheet music, were not options for the group. Yet these obstacles were seen as simply challenges rather than stumbling blocks, and the ensemble endeavoured to find means and ways as admirable as they are pioneering.
Broken violins were fixed with bicycle cable; wind instruments were borrowed from the KBB and other sources; the first double bass the group acquired initially had no bow. Further, Diangienda initially could not read music, yet he taught himself this, and went on to score compositions by listening repeatedly to CDs, which were then copied out by hand for each musician. With no financial gains and such limited access to resources, the OSK truly was a labour of love when it started, for both its founder and its members.
At the end of 1994, the ensemble’s performance in a concert in Kinshasa exposed their talent and ingenuity to the population of the city. Since then, their popularity snowballed as they played in venues across the country. With success came an influx of new members, and its numbers have swelled to over 200 members today, including a choir. In 2002, Diangienda became Musical Director of the orchestra; a year later he composed his first work, a fusion of African and classical music attesting to his impressive musical self-education. Even with such an impressive trajectory, and as the only all-black orchestra across the globe, it was only in 2010 that the rest of the world sat up and took notice, when German documentary-makers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer decided to turn their lens on Diangienda and his musicians.
The resulting film,Kinshasa Symphony, won a host of awards, and saw the ensemble suddenly at the centre of the world’s attention. The group have received visits from industry insiders from locations as diverse as Los Angeles, Germany, and China. Earlier this year they completed their first tour outside Africa, taking in locations across the USA and Europe, culminating in a concert in Monaco; all under the conducting baton of Diangienda. Yet whilst their fame is now worldwide, the orchestra is still hampered by the many problems that marked it from the start. The group must perform in the Director’s home, but with so many members, they cannot all fit in at once and must practise in shifts. Rehearsals still take place at night as members are still amateurs. These sessions are often marred by power cuts, though this never stops the musicians entirely; they simply play instead by the light of mobile phones.
It is Diangienda’s ambition to turn his orchestra into a full-time, professional ensemble; beyond this, he hopes to found a music school in his native DR Congo. The story of this triumph over adversity has captured the imaginations of the western world: it is a compelling tale, yet unfortunately these financial constraints continue to be a reality for the group. As their success and fame continues to grow, a number of organisations in Europe and the US continue to support through the donation of instruments and funds. Given his phenomenal drive and the meteoric rise of the orchestra so far, it seems unlikely Diangienda would not realise his aims, even if he was unaided. With this help, though, that might just happen a bit sooner.