From Kinshasa to Albertville with the Kimbanguiste Symphony Orchestra, Radio Okapi and Fondation Hirondelle

By Dennis Faroud, Head of Media at Fondation Hirondelle in Democratic Republic of Congo

It’s 5 PM Sunday in Albertville (France), near the Italian border. Seven hundred standing spectators in the big hall of the “Grand Bivouac” Festival give long applause to Armand Diangenda, the conductor and musical director of the Kimbanguiste Symphony Orchestra (KSO). The film “Kinshasa Symphony” has just finished on the large screen above the stage, and in a minute a sextet from the KSO will start playing a new Congolese composition by the KSO first violin with a live link up from the Fondation Hirondelle gardens on the 30 June Boulevard in Kinshasa.

All around me, expressions of wonder confirm we have just witnessed something historic in this concert by central Africa’s only symphony orchestra, staffed entirely by amateurs. Conductor “Papa Armand” takes a long time to reach the Festival’s buffet as spectators question him about his music and the conditions in his country. As for me, I respond to questions about Radio Okapi (Can we listen to Radio Okapi in France?) and about the work of the Swiss NGO Fondation Hirondelle. Certainly the Grand Bivouac public – more than 30,000 people in three days at this 13th edition – are interested and engaged. “The festival is not only escape and entertainment,” says Grand Bivouac president and founder Guy Chaumereuil, “ it’s above all about discovering new horizons and new people.” He was smiling too on Sunday night. It remains to be seen what emerges from this musical meeting of two countries.

When we talk about development we mostly evoke political and economic progress, less often culture and exchange. They may appear less important, more anecdotal, but the one does not go without the other. A film can on its own generate enthusiasm and bring proposals for collaboration and coming together, as well as the pleasure it may bring its audience. Congolese producers want to re-launch cinema in the DRC, the Francofolies music festival is coming to Kinshasa in February, and some associations are working for social, educational and professional reinsertion through music or theatre (e.g. the Masolo project in Masina). At Okapi we believe in the importance of all artistic initiatives that go beyond the simple pleasure of dancing or singing (although we believe in that to!) But we must not relegate culture simply to the cultural slots in our program. It’s up to us to popularize it and insert it into news and programmes always with the aim to educate and to reach the largest number of people.