Despite being ravaged by war and poverty, the Democratic Republic of Congo has produced the world’s first all-black symphony orchestra, which has grown from a small group with home-made instruments to a respected international outfit.
A day after arriving in England from Kinshasa, Armand Diangienda is evidently impressed by the facilities offered by his hosts, the Halle Orchestra in Manchester.
But when asked about the difference between the Halle and his Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, the first thing he mentions is not the rehearsal room, a former church converted by the Halle at a cost of £1.5m last year, where musicians from both orchestras are running through great works by Beethoven and Berlioz.
Nor does he discuss the Bridgewater Hall, the Halle’s shiny, purpose-built concert venue, which cost £42m in 1996 and is built on 280 sets of giant steel springs to reduce noise from the nearby railway, and where the two orchestras will perform together on Thursday.
He is surely impressed by both. But the things he reserves particular awe for are Manchester’s public transport system and power network.
“Here it’s very easy for everybody to arrive and get here on time,” Diangienda explains.
That is not the case in the chaotic capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has more residents than London, Paris or Seoul, but where his musicians often struggle with basics of everyday life.
“It’s difficult to get there on time because of the transport,” he says. “A lot of the musicians are students or they’re selling things in the market, so they can’t necessarily arrive on time because of other commitments.
“There might be somebody who’s rushed to the rehearsal from work and hasn’t had time to eat, so that puts other pressures on.
“And when everybody’s ready and everything’s set up – then the power cuts.”
Diangienda set up the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (OSK) in 1994 after losing his job as an airline pilot.
“The thing that really gets us through all this is a real passion for the music,” he says.
The orchestra is an offshoot of the Kimbanguist Church, which was founded by Diangienda’s grandfather Simon Kimbangu, regarded as a prophet and a martyr who was imprisoned by the Belgian colonial rulers for 30 years and died in jail in 1951.
When the orchestra began, 12 violinists had to share five instruments, each person practising for 20 minutes before handing the instrument on to someone else.
Some instruments were built from scratch, while others were bought second-hand from China.
The orchestra has grown despite a five-year war in DRC that involved five neighbouring countries and claimed an estimated three million lives before it ended in 2003.
The country now regularly comes near – or at – the bottom of international lists for life expectancy, income, health and education.
While most news reaching the West from DRC is bad, the orchestra is a triumph of passion and ingenuity over adversity.
It gained international attention through an acclaimed German documentary in 2010, and last year, the UK’s Royal Philharmonic Society made Diangienda an honorary member, a rare accolade previously bestowed upon the likes of Mendelssohn, Wagner and Brahms.
At home, OSK is making inroads as an ambassador for Western classical music. When the orchestra began, about two-thirds of its audiences were expat foreigners, Diangienda says.
“Now, it’s more and more Congolese who come to our concerts. To begin with, they used to say they found it boring, this music would send them to sleep – they didn’t appreciate it.
“Because they’ve started to get to know the music and appreciate the work, they come more and more.”
OSK now has around 200 members, 110 of whom have travelled for the orchestra’s first UK tour, which will take in London, Cardiff and Bristol as well as Manchester.
“The most important resource an orchestra can have is a desire to make the best music possible,” the Halle’s assistant conductor, Jamie Phillips, says. “That’s something the Kinshasa orchestra clearly has in common with the Halle.
“The Halle’s able to then support the Kinshasa orchestra in a practical sense and in terms of guiding them through some challenging repertoire. That’s something we can give to them and will be honoured to do so.”
With instrument repair experts thin on the ground in DRC, the Halle has provided specialists to patch up OSK’s equipment before the tour gets going.
“It’s really, really hard if you want to be a professional musician,” says Kinshasa-based violinist Heritier Mayimbi, one of the few non-amateurs. “It’s not very well supported.
“We have a little bit of help but it’s not like here in Europe, where it’s a respected profession, and it’s hard sometimes to deal with that.”
Cellist Josephine Nsimba-Mpongo says: “My life isn’t easy. I have a shop selling things for women like nail varnish and second-hand stuff.
“What’s difficult is finding time to go to work but also to practise music. It was really difficult for me so that’s why I decided to change my job. I used to be a nurse. I chose to do a shop instead so that I have time for rehearsals, so now it’s easier.”
After a sightseeing trip to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, the Congolese musicians were paired up with their Halle counterparts for tips and tuition during rehearsals.
Speaking through a translator for the interview, Nsimba-Mpongo says: “If I don’t understand the language, we can use gestures to make each other understood.
“It doesn’t matter if you come to England and you don’t speak English because we all speak music. It’s a universal language.”
The Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste will perform at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Thursday, London’s Southbank Centre on Sunday, Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Monday and Bristol’s Colston Hall on Tuesday.
A documentary about the tour will be shown on BBC Four next month.