Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra

I met Maestro Armand Diangienda, the Founder and Music Director of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra, in London in May 2013. He was in town to receive honorary membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in recognition of services to music. Like all those who meet Armand, I was struck by his passion, tenacity, and energy. A former airline pilot and self-taught musician, Armand followed his dream and created the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra (L'Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste) within his local community in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Armand named the orchestra after his grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, a healer and preacher, and the founder of Kimbanguism, Africa’s largest independent church.

Statistically, Kinshasa is one of the poorest cities in the world, and many of those who live there struggle to make ends meet. The country was on the brink of civil war when the orchestra was first established in 1994, but the opportunity to play music together became an act of hope and resistance. In those early days of the orchestra's life, musicians would walk for several hours after work to play in a make-shift rehearsal venue, often sharing instruments between them and playing from orchestral parts that had been hand-copied from the conductor's score.

Armand explained that for members of the orchestra, being part of this musical community was a shared endeavour and a source of pride. "Above all, the orchestra gives the musicians hope", he said. "Through their work they have been made to feel important, to feel considered, to feel responsible. When you feel useful and responsible, then you feel like taking part."

The Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra and Choir toured to the UK for the first time in Summer 2014. They gave concerts at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Colston Hall in Bristol, and Southbank Centre in London. They performed with musicians from the Hallé Orchestra and Choirs, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the London Philharmonic Choir, and Bristol Choral Society. The composer and animateur Eugene Skeef led an inspiring workshop programme with Bristol Plays Music, bringing together young musicians from Bristol and members of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra. The BBC commissioned a full-length documentary about the  tour - Congo Calling: An African Orchestra in Britain, as well as a podcast.

These photographs were taken over the 10 days I spent travelling with the orchestra around the UK, documenting many different aspects of this extraordinary tour.

“The perspective and vocabulary her images evoke, whether in a rehearsal room or public space, are profound. Far from simply documenting a single moment in time, one can detect through Sarah’s work something much deeper about the articulation of her ideas and about the field of photography. What the observer encounters is an image seeking to engage in a relationship that is proactive and not simply responsive.”

Paul Anthony Morris, theatre director and writer