One of the more obnoxious myths about the poor is that because they’re poor, they’ll never amount to anything, therefore it’s up to us enlightened Westerners to come in and give the poor the tools they need to advance in life.
But as Robert Woodson reminds us, the best poverty-fighters are those who come from low-income communities and know the obstacles that have to be overcome in advancing in the world. And while we can’t impose culture on the world, we should cheer efforts by the Third World to reach out to Western civilization. This is why I found Alexis Okeowo’s account of a symphony orchestra emerging in the Congo a very inspiring piece.
Okeowo, a fellow at New America, describes the efforts of Armand Diangienda to lead what the magazine calls the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra but whose real name is the Orchestre Symphonie Kimbanguiste. (The orchestra’s website is in French.) Diangienda is the grandson of Simon Kimbangu, who “was regarded by his followers as a prophet anointed by God.” About eight million Africans consider themselves Kimbanguists, which appears to be a syncretic religion with some Christian elements. In 2002, Diangienda broke away from the existing Kimbanguist Church, and now leads his own denomination.
Diangienda went to flight school in the U.S. in the 1980s and flew DC3s in the Congo for a few years. But Congo in the 1980s and 1990s was a kleptocracy run by Joseph Mobutu, who practiced the traditional “Big Man” methods of rule where he stole everything he could until his overthrow in 1997.
“During Mobutu’s tenure,” Okeowo writes, “a common joke imagined a constitutional provision—Article 15—that gave officials the right to solicit bribes and to steal.”
Okeowo gives one telling sign of the Congo’s continuing economic collapse. At one point she refers to the Gare Centrale—Kinshasa’s long-time central railroad station—as a “defunct” station. If a country can’t manage its passenger trains, it can’t manage much else.
With the stress of living in the Congo in the 1990s, where there were no jobs, few social services, sky-high rents, and bad public transportation, Congolese tried to form various forms of escape. Diangienda saw the orchestra as an alternative. He had brought back classical CDs from America, and his church had some music, including flutes and a choir, who played hymns translated by Catholic missionaries into the Kikongo language. So he decided that it would be fun to see what a symphony orchestra would be like.
The legacy of classical music in Congo is complex. During colonial times, Francophone Congolese who considered themselves cultured or “evolved” (évolué) “spoke perfect French, knew the right fork at dinner, dressed in European fashions, and refrained from dancing expressively or listening to Congolese music in public.” Joseph Mobutu urged Congolese to reject the West and only listen to “authentic” music. But classical music was always played in churches, and when Joseph Mobutu’s wife died, classical music was played for days.
The orchestra scrounged for instruments. Some came from expatriates who shipped clarinets and violins to their home country because it was safer than cash. In other cases, the musicians made their own instruments.
Originally the orchestra found it hard to find places to play, but embassies and churches provided venues. The orchestra eventually found international renown. In 2008 Diangienda and some colleagues attended classes in Europe. The media also discovered the orchestra, with films about it appearing in 2012 on German television and on “60 Minutes”.
But the Kimbanguist Orchestra still has cultural obstacles to overcome. Seth Matumona, the secretary-general of the orchestra, explained that Western audiences are often skeptical of the orchestra’s skills. “People are surprised because we’re all black,” Matumona said. “If there’s one white guy as a maestro or musician, they would say, ‘O.K., it’s because that white guy is there—it’s where it all comes from.’”
It’s also clear that the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra will never be as good as Western orchestras because its members all have demanding day jobs. Josephine Mbongo, Armand Diangienda’s wife, explained her day—up at 4, getting the kids ready for school at 5, then off at 7 to work in a boutique. “Then in the evening I go off to rehearsal,” she said, “so my head is loaded with so many things. Abroad, they only play music from morning to evening. Of course the performances cannot be the same. But we’ve improved a lot.”
The story of the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra shows what one man can do to improve civil society in one of the world’s most troubled countries.