Illustration By Josh Cochran
By Alexis Okeowo
When Armand Diangienda picks up an instrument that he has never played, he looks for its hidden rule. There is always a rule, just as in math: a principle that tells him that when he plays one note, or one chord, the next one naturally follows. His fingers mimic how he’s seen others handle the instrument, and then they find the patterns themselves, gaining assurance on the strings, or keys, or valves. “I thank God for that talent, because I can just look at someone playing and I can figure it out,” he said. That skill enabled Diangienda to learn piano, guitar, cello, trombone, and trumpet, and it was crucial twenty years ago, when he started the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra, in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On a muggy recent evening, he walked to the orchestra’s practice room, a few steps from his office in the compound that contains his family home and the church he helps lead. Dozens of men and women, including young teen-agers and middle-aged mothers, sat in plastic chairs and shared music stands that held the score to the “Marseillaise.” In keeping with church tradition, everyone was barefoot, and Diangienda slipped off his sandals as he passed through the door. Wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and beige pants, he settled on a stool facing the musicians and wiped sweat from his brow. “Are you listening to me?” he called out. Musicians leaned into one another, talking and exchanging tips; the sounds of horns and strings clashed as players warmed up. The space was cramped; an oblong yellow-and-beige room with plastic flowers adorning the walls, it had transparent doors that let in a weak breeze from a courtyard. A small crowd from the church was watching outside. “I want us to be very focussed,” Diangienda said. “If someone feels this is not going to work, just tell me, ‘Papa Armand, this is not going to work,’ and I’ll find something else to do, because I’m a realistic person.”
Outside the compound, Kinshasa is a city perpetually under construction and in motion. Many intersections have no traffic lights, and so Kinois, as the residents call themselves, cross first with a few tentative steps and then at a full sprint. Venders dodge cars and buses as they hawk Ya Mado and Ndombolo CDs; music stalls blast Congolese pop—springy, guitar-driven rhythms made for dancing. One day, on the congested Avenue Kitona, I watched a man in a pin-striped suit elegantly balancing a bass in the midday sun. Soon afterward, a kid leaped toward my car window to try to grab my phone.
The city is divided into moneyed enclaves like Gombe—where the well-off live and where many Kinois work—and the cité, where everyone else resides. In the cité, people live nearly on top of one another, in a noisy, sleep-defying maze of eateries, bars, hair salons, street venders, churches, and shops. Diangienda lives in a quarter called Ngiri-Ngiri, near a vast market that sells meat and vegetables alongside electrical and plumbing parts.
The orchestra used to practice in a hall in town, but that arrangement fell through, so Diangienda’s home has become a conservatory and a practice hall, a place where music and singing are always heard. Diangienda never attended music school, and most of his musical knowledge comes from his childhood church. But Héritier Mayimbi, the concertmaster, told me that he was tireless: “He works only for musicians and his orchestra. He does nothing else.”
Diangienda has the look of a favorite uncle: a broad, genial face, with close-cut hair, a slightly grayed mustache, and an attentive manner. At the podium, he put on a stern expression. “Food is not going to come from Heaven like it did for the children of Israel,” he said. “Do not expect such miracles. People are making and inventing things of many kinds; you and I have chosen music. What I can’t stand is people saying that I’m not going to rehearse; I’ll just come for the concert.” He reminded the musicians that the French Embassy had invited them to perform, during a week of events promoting French economic and cultural activity in Kinshasa. “The compositions we are playing are becoming more and more complicated,” he said. “When you come here, some may come on time, but they take too much time chatting with others, and take more time laughing instead of rehearsing.” Everyone erupted into laugher. Diangienda allowed himself to smile.
He called out to Mayimbi, “Héritier, will you gather the strings to rehearse?” Mayimbi, short and slender, with a lisp, was floating in the black suit that he sometimes wears to rehearsals. He nodded. Diangienda held up his baton, and they began to play.
Diangienda was born fifty-one years ago, on the same land he lives on now. His old house has been torn down, replaced with a renovated family home and church—a sprawling concrete building painted in the Kimbanguist colors of green and white and surrounded by a green metal fence. In the orchestra’s general office is a large portrait of Simon Kimbangu, the founder of the sect and Diangienda’s grandfather: full face, hefty build, serious but kind eyes. Kimbangu, who advocated a new African version of Christianity, was regarded by his followers as a prophet anointed by God. In 1921, the Belgians put him in prison, and thirty years later he died as a martyr there, but his movement only gained strength, and it now has about eight million adherents throughout central Africa.