There’s a word that I learned in Lingala, one whose meaning I didn’t really know until my second to last night in town, but a word that I began using the first day I worked with the musicians in the Kimbanguist Orchestra.
Kaori and I got to the designated rehearsal site on our first day, clutching our Flutes and a schedule we had set up through email conversations with Seth, the orchestra secretary. Seth works at the Geneva Embassy, but most weekdays he comes to the orchestra site after his day is done at the office.
Our plan looked like this ->
Weeks ago, when Seth first replied to us, Kaori and I were just glad that he responded. Seth got us more excited because he had attached this spreadsheet of schedules, which we took to mean they were actually eager to work with us. Then, I thought to myself, “Are people going to take time off work to come work with us?” There were so many questions that kept popping in my head thereafter, but I had no real means to find out more information over our limited e-mail conversations. How did the musicians learn to play music? Where did they get their instruments? When do they practice? Why do they play music?
In the weeks that followed, Kaori and I probably suggested to each other over 100 theories of how and why this orchestra must be functioning. Each theory we presented to the other always seemed just as uncertain as the last, and we would often end our conversations with an enthusiastic, “We’ll just have to go there and find out!” That day had finally arrived, so although I was still adjusting to driving through Kinshasa, I was full of excitement as I peered out the window, looking for the green gates that Seth had described in his email.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Jerry, a friendly Bassoonist who spoke some English and Gil, one of the five flutists who spoke a mixture of Lingala, the local dialect, as well as some French. It was hard trying to communicate with them, and after a few awkward exchanges, we began to do something that felt much more natural to all of us - music!
I walked into a room with Gil, and we both took out our Flutes. We both began to warm-up, and I saw that he had the flute part for Beethoven's 9th Symphony. We began to work. It was awkward at first, both of us trying to figure out how to communicate with the other. I knew very little about him, and he knew very little about me. But after the last couple of days I had experienced, playing and teaching Flute was like coming home. I would try to use some French, some Lingala, but when I got stuck, I would just play for him. If I wanted him to use more support, I took his hand and placed it on my stomach. I'm sure this would have been strange in many other social contexts, but within the framework of a "flute lesson" it felt natural. I think Gil felt the same way, because he began to smile more, relax, and play more freely!
By 2PM, there were more and more musicians there. We led an ensemble class, consisting of 4 flutists, an oboist, 2 clarinetists, and a bassoonist. Kaori and I were stunned! Not just by how well these musicians played, but by the amount of emotion and love with which these musicians treated every single note. They swayed back and forth as they played, moving in time with the music and feeling every shade of nuance and color Beethoven had written in his music. That was the moment I knew I understood them. Every bone in my body new exactly how they were feeling as they played, and in that moment, that's all any of us cared about. Through working on pitch, balance, and time, we explored ideas about teamwork, about how music isn't about deciding who is wrong, but more about working together to be in harmony. It's the kind of concept that's hard to communicate in a foreign country where you don't know the culture, the language, the people. But it's so easy to talk about through music, once you've played some pieces together, tried to tune with one one another, and realized that we are all in love with classical music.
At the end of the ensemble session, the Oboist said to us with a twinkle in his eye, "say, CHITUNGAA!!" Something about the way he said it made us not repeat it at first, scared that it might be extremely inappropriate or offensive. He kept insisting, and finally, we repeated the words, quite timidly. To our surprise, the response was wonderful! The musicians jumped up and down, roaring in laughter and creating sort of a growling sound together. We left the orchestra site slightly puzzled, with a lot of questions still unanswered. We still didn't know a lot about these musicians, but we did know one thing for sure. These musicians love music, they are quite good already, and they just want to keep improving. We certainly had some moments when we felt we were really connecting with them, so Kaori and I drove away wondering what tomorrow would bring, and wondering what in the world Chitunga actually means!!