The world’s tightest-budget symphony

There are African rhythms in Beethoven. This is the first thing we learn in Clau Wishmann and Martin Baer’s film “Kinshasa Symphony.”

There are African rhythms in Beethoven. This is the first thing we learn in Clau Wishmann and Martin Baer’s film “Kinshasa Symphony.” A town of dirt streets, Volkswagen vans from the ’60s, and rows of people selling anything they can to make extra money doesn’t sound much like the American dream. However, despite the chaotic setting of the city of Kinshasa, a harmonious classical music echoes from the center of the town square, competing with the noise of reality.

The film operates as a documentary not only about the history of the orchestra, but also as the nature of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire. Members of the orchestra are featured not only as musicians, but also as workers, mothers, fathers and dreamers. Viewers meet the enthusiastic members of the orchestra including Joseph, an electrician, barbershop owner and violin player. They are introduced to Nathalie, a recently evicted single mother who plays the flute. Also enter the life of Papy, a husband, father, mechanic, pharmacy shop keep, good Samaritan and tuba player. Somewhere between work, family, and the struggle to find a place to live or keep thieves away, all the members find time for rehearsal.

If the tribulations of their personal lives weren’t enough, the musicians often need to make their own instruments, illustrating the skill and sacrifice involved in the musical passions of the Congolese. A gorgeous string bass is made right before viewers’ eyes from a splinter-laden block of lumber. And if something goes wrong in the process—and something always goes wrong—the Congolese have a lighthearted way of making it right.

Broken violin strings can be replaced with old bicycle brake cables and the D bell can be found by trying out all sorts of scrap metal. The ensemble’s members’ practice cannot be set aside for anything, including work, annoyed roommates, missing instrumental components and rolling cameras.

The medium is the message in “Kinshasa Symphony.” One of the most powerful scenes features Joseph playing the violin in front of a dump truck. The sounds of the dump truck are not excluded by producers. It is intentionally, and somehow harmoniously embedded in the scene, which all too quickly disappears in a cloud of dust. Wishmann and Baer’s masterpiece truly succeeds at showing an inherently empowering juxtaposition; amidst the chaos of the city, there is an incredible display of order and harmony within the symphony. An insight to the capabilities of humankind, “Kinshasa Symphony” empowers viewers and enlightens audience members to the power of music.

As violin player Eritier explains: “When we’re working on the music, there are no limits. It’s like a staircase; you keep going up and up.” And sometimes this feeling can help us see the beautiful aspects of a difficult life. “I’m a long way away, it’s really fabulous!” explains Mireille of singing in the choir.

Inspiring and admirable, the movie echoes the notion that “Being Congolese should not be a disadvantage,” as Nathalie puts it. Amidst the chaos of the Congo’s most populated city, the world’s only all-black orchestra reminds us all that each life deserves a soundtrack. ?