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Classical Path in the Congo


During the opening concert of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra last Wednesday, The Free For All Concert Fund presented the first Charles Ansbacher Music for All Award  to Armand  Diangienda, the founder of the only symphony orchestra in central Africa. His compelling story of creating a symphony orchestra in the impoverished and war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo was featured on a recent installment of “60 Minutes” here.

Diangienda and his nephew, Nzinga Nkenda, are grandson and great grandson of Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the 17-million-member religious movement after which Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste is named. In conversation with the two, BMInt’s Lee Eiseman learned that their love of classical music actually began within the church, and that their religious beliefs impel them to make music.

Maestro Armand (Kinshasa Symphony image)

“My father was a special leader of the Kimbanguist Church, where a long time ago — I think it was in 1985 — I began playing keyboard in a small band,” Diangienda explained. “Some friends were playing trombone, and we had a double bass. My father told me, ‘Son, I would like you to open your door for everyone who would like to do music with you.’ When I came back from my studies in Belgium in 1991, I also soon after lost my job as a pilot, and I remembered what my father had asked me to do. So I decided that starting a symphony orchestra was the thing I could do.

“We started out with really no instruments, just a few violins and just a few women and boys who liked to play. Nobody was there to teach us. Even I — I was a pilot, not a musician. Nobody taught me how to play the cello. It’s an amazing story, but it’s true. We had to learn by ourselves. My father had been listening to classical music in our home, but I was not really a fan then. But when we started the orchestra it was with a piece we already knew, Handel’s Messiah, and some small pieces of Mozart. Within the church there were already trumpet players and clarinet players, so we asked them to come to our first concert. Then we made it our mission to teach ourselves how to play the other instruments.

“It was not ever about African traditional music. I wanted to open the door to all persons, and the only way I could do that was with classical music. I can have a big choir, a big orchestra — there is no problem. But we are not going to play classical music all of the time. But learning this music will help us learn to write our own music. On Saturday we gave a concert in Brazzaville, across the river from Kinshasa, and we played only our music with a symphony orchestra.”

The story is similar to that of grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, who with his followers started out singing Western hymns in their services but gradually began to be inspired to write their own music.

According to Nzinga Nkenda, Simon Kimbangu, who was born in the then Belgian Congo in 1887, later became inspired to become the spiritual leader of a new movement. In 1921, he was arrested by Belgian officials after having preached for only 2 months. He was imprisoned for 30 years, during which time his wife and then three children led the movement. There are now 26 grandsons of the founder who are responsible for the mission.

“Yes, I write my own music,” continued Diangienda, “I’ve already written two symphonies and am working on a third. Another member of the mission has also written a symphony which we played last Saturday. When we play the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Verdi — that will teach us the way to make music with our instruments and one day to do much more with our own music. We use classical music to get us to the point where we can one day show our own culture through our orchestra.

“In the beginning of the Kimbanguist Movement, when my grandfather started his ministry, he sent someone to go and buy song books. But people said to him why not have your own songs. So since that day we have been singing inspired songs of our own. We write them down, but not everyone understands what they are singing, but they are still inspired. Some are in French, some are in English some are from the East —  this is very special in our church.

Asked about his future as a conductor, whether it is about conducting orchestra’s around the world as he did Wednesday night at the Hatch Shell, or more about bringing a message to people, Diangienda responded, “My future is not only to show my vision, but more to share the message: There is only one God. Everyone tries to find their way to God. But why not also conduct other orchestras? Yesterday I was very happy to conduct the Landmarks. I’m not just a missionary, but if I have the opportunity to talk about my grandfather, why not, I would do this. Also in the future, it’s important to teach music early to children. Since independence from Belgium, Kinshasa has had a conservatory, but it was mostly for adults, and that’s really too late for music training — and it’s not a high level. Also they never had an orchestra. But in my orchestra most of the musicians have time to practice every day. So sometimes when a member of the conservatory needs to play a concerto, they do it with members of my orchestra.

“It’s my idea to build a school where children can play orchestral instruments and the door will be open for everybody. We would also help the children if they had problems in their regular schools. Someone could play violin, but we would also help him with his homework. Just one month ago we began with a concert given by children. Now we have more than 20 kids who play the violin and we will be starting with all of the other orchestral instruments.

“My house became a music school because we don’t have another place. It’s a big project for the future to find a place where we can build more rooms for the children to practice. We also need a theater. Many times when we have a concert we have a problem. Sometimes there is too much noise to focus and concentrate on making music. In my country the weather conditions are not easy. Many times we have to play at a hangar at the French cultural center. It has a metal roof, and when it is raining we cannot play.

“Finally I would like to say how moving it was to conduct the Landmarks Orchestra last Wednesday night. It was not just the audience that thanked me, but also the orchestra was also really happy, and they really followed me. After the concert everybody came to me to say, ‘Maestro, wonderful, wonderful.’ I was really happy.”

At the close of the conversation, the interviewer, Lee Eiseman, asked Maestro Armand if he had noticed the musical score under the glass-topped table between them. It was the cover of a song sheet of Dvořák’s “Goin’ Home.” He had never heard of the song, but after Eiseman sang a few bars, his eyes lighted up and he walked over to the piano and played the Largo from Dvořák’s New World Symphony, “I’ve conducted the symphony many times, he said.”

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