I met Maestro Armand Diangienda, the founder & 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, & energy. A former airline pilot & self-taught musician, Armand followed his dream & 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, who was a healer & preacher, & the founder of Kimbanguism - Africa’s largest independent church.
Statistically, Kinshasa is one of the poorest cities in the world. It's chaotic & crowded. Many people who live there struggle to make ends meet. When the orchestra was first established in 1994, the country was on the brink of civil war. But the opportunity to play music together became an act of hope & resistance. Musicians would walk for several hours at the end of a long day's work to a make-shift rehearsal venue where the power frequently cut out. In the early days of the orchestra players would often have to share instruments, & orchestral parts were 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 & brought a sense 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 & responsible, then you feel like taking part."
The Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra & Choir toured to the UK for the first time in Summer 2014, visiting London, Manchester, Bristol and Cardiff. They gave concerts at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Colston Hall in Bristol, & Southbank Centre in London. They met & performed with musicians from the Hallé Orchestra & Choirs, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the London Philharmonic Choir, & Bristol Choral Society, as well as participating in workshops with their British colleagues. The composer & animateur Eugene Skeef led an inspiring workshop programme with Bristol Plays Music for young musicians & members of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra. The BBC commissioned a full-length documentary celebrating the UK tour - Congo Calling: An African Orchestra in Britain, & a podcast. I spent 10 days travelling with the orchestra around the UK, photographing them in rehearsal & in performance, hanging out with them backstage, at their hotels, & on sightseeing trips.