200 people at a local church have succeeded in creating a concert hall orchestra to bring Handel, Beethoven and Mozart to Kinshasa, the heart of Africa, the home of the swaying Congolese rumba.
They are a motley mix of dressmakers and shopkeepers, pupils and students, hairdressers and civil servants, all part of an orchestra which tackles great works from Western classical tradition.
AdvertisementIn their black suits and satin gowns, they have been playing to increasing acclaim since they were formed 16 years ago.
"In Africa and even in the world, you'll never see an orchestra like ours, consisting entirely of blacks," proclaimed Armand Diangienda, musical director of the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra (OSK) which he helped found in 1994.
"It's an orchestra of amateurs," he added, "but it's not just any orchestra that can play Beethoven and Mozart."
Diangienda, 46, is a grandson of Simon Kimbangu, founder of the Kimbanguist church, which claims about 10 million followers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's population of 60 million.
The church may be controversial -- its beliefs are based on Simon Kimbangu, who is seen as a black prophet -- but its orchestra has won widespread backing from all kinds who go to concerts or attend Sunday services when it plays.
Still, the musicians' public consists mainly of white people and they also attract foreign conductors, some of whom have made the trip to the shores of the Congo river to lead them in concert.
Antoine Malungane, 46, a nurse by training and a double bass player in the orchestra since its creation, fondly remembers the 2001 visit of US conductor Michael Morgan, musical director of the Oakland Philharmonic Orchestra.
Having started out with just a dozen musicians, including five violinists, but now numbering scores, the leaders of the OSK did not expect the orchestra "to take on these proportions," Malungane said.
A documentary film entitled "Kinshasa Symphony," made in the capital in the summer and autumn of 2009 by German directors Claus Winsmann and Martin Baer, is showing at the current Berlin Film Festival.
The film shows the daily lives of some of the 185 instrumental players and the 110 chorists, including rehearsals and how they manage to reconcile their passion with their professional activities.
"The musicians didn't come here to earn a wage, but rather to glorify God," said Armand Diangienda, a trained pilot and a self-trained musician and a big fan of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
According to Diangienda, who has conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Blue Danube waltz by Strauss, "classical music is a way for us to express our joy and our woes."
Some people, like 40-year-old chorist Angele Yala, say they get "spiritual motivation" from the musical sessions.
Between two rehearsals of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," colleague Aurelie Bode, who has spent 13 of her 27 years singing in the choir, declares, "It's only death that will separate me from the OSK."