KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo’s sweltering riverside capital is more accustomed to the pulsating rhythms of some of Africa’s most famous Soukous and Rumba musicians than the more genteel strains of Italian classical composer Guiseppe Verdi.
But a strange musical oddity - a symphony orchestra of self-taught musicians, some of whom had to make their own instruments - is becoming one of Congo’s most well-known exports, even attracting royal patronage.
Formed almost 20 years ago by a handful of music enthusiasts, the Kimbanguiste Symphony Orchestra has grown steadily in numbers, proficiency and stature, culminating in a trip to Monaco earlier this year.
On Saturday, Princess Caroline of Monaco paid a return visit to watch a concert amidst the dilapidated sprawl of Kinshasa.
Armand Diangienda is the orchestra’s founder, a man with no musical background who taught himself to play the cello and later to conduct.
“We always said we’d make it far but we didn’t expect it to turn out like this,” he says, with a broad smile.
The orchestra is named after Diangienda’s grandfather Simon Kimbangu, a Congolese religious leader who stood up to Belgian colonists and established his own church.
It has brought together around 80 musicians and 100 singers from across Kinshasa, a crumbling metropolis of 10 million people where daily survival leaves little room for the luxuries of classical music.
More than 50 years of dictatorship, corruption and two devastating wars - the last officially ending in 2003 - have left Congo in ruins.
Kinshasa’s population has ballooned as people from across the vast nation gravitate to the city in hope of work. Most remained trapped in abject poverty in labyrinthine districts where infrastructure has collapsed under the weight of numbers and neglect.
Amidst all this, Diangienda embarked on building what is said to be central Africa’s only symphony orchestra.
“The biggest challenges were finding the instruments and also we had no teachers so we had to learn from scratch. Then we had to get the Congolese to like the music,” Diangienda says of a nation which holds its own musical stars in god-like esteem.
Although the orchestra has mostly captured international imagination, the outdoor auditorium where they performed in Kinshasa was filled with a mixture of Congolese and foreigners.
The start of the concert was welcomed with the sort of whoops and cheers not associated with the beginning of a classical recital, much to the frowning chagrin of some of the orchestra’s more traditionally minded members.
But Nicole Curau, a professional violinist from Monaco who travelled to Kinshasa to play alongside the Kimbanguistes, says the orchestra offers hope to classical music.
“It’s true that today classical music is seen to be part of old Europe. The number of orchestras is going down, and there are smaller and smaller audiences often filled with very old people. But this is a real renewal, and (there’s) an incredible love for the music which you get from everyone here.”
The orchestra has ambitions to set up a music school in Kinshasa but for the time being hopefuls will have to take the same difficult path as Tresor Wamba, who taught himself the viola.
“My friends would ask me what I’m doing with this orchestra of ancient arts, telling me it would bring me nothing and that I should drop it,” the 26-year-old student said.
After more than 10 years in the orchestra, juggling studies and his passion for music, Wamba found himself preparing to play in front of hundreds of people, including a European princess.
“You’ve got to have hope. You try and try over many years, and here we are, these are the fruits of all our labour,” he said.
Reporting by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Bate Felix and Paul Casciato