By our third day of working with the musicians, Kaori and I had found our stride. We learned many of the essential musical terms in Lingala or French, and we were beginning to piece together facts about their life. Over and over again, the musicians would tell us they were amateurs, and that they never had teachers that could show them how to play their instruments. They would express how much they wanted to learn more fundamentals, and that whatever they learned from us, they would certainly share with the newer players.
Jerry, the Bassoonist in the orchestra, told me that the older musicians in the orchestra all teach the younger players. When I asked if they get paid, he smiled and said, "Nobody has money. We are OK if somebody give us a little bit of money, but nobody has money." He then added, "If somebody wants to learn music, I will teach them! No problem! I don't need your money. But if you come here, you must respect our rules. You cannot come here like this [slouched over]. You have to be smart to play music. You must also work very hard to play music."
Each day, there were 5 or 6 children crowded over one music stand, often with one older musician standing behind them, offering them advice. Sometimes, not all the children would have instruments of their own. But they never stopped practicing. All day long, you could here music being sung and played.
This explains why every musician there can read music really well. No one struggles with reading notes or rhythms. And no matter how many times I offer to take a break, they always answer "NO!"
Jerry explained that they were very happy we were there, because they wanted to learn more. And they wanted to teach more. Not necessarily for money, but because according to Jerry, "That is what it means to be Congolese." Jerry also said he likes music because "music gives me time to think. Congolese don't have space to think, so I play music!" Jerry explained to me how in his religion, dancing isn't allowed, because it's "not from the heart." But it's OK to "dance" when you play music, because it's "straight from the heart."
I was beginning to see just how special music was for Jerry, and possibly many of the other members in this orchestra. It's a way of processing and expressing many of the things they feel, and it's rooted in this community that they all work hard to preserve. It's special to each of them, so they continue to work on their craft and feel strongly about passing it along to the youth in the community.
Jerry told me that the Congolese are very friendly people, and that they are very generous. He told me, "We can sleep, eat, talk, make music together!" He also said they were very giving, and that if he has money one day, he shares it with somebody that does't have money. To be honest, that wasn't the impression I got in any other part of Kinshasa. But it certainly felt that way here. Within the gated community, I left my flute unattended, along with my passport and my US dollars. Even when I left my pencil on a music stand (something musicians are constantly leaving behind all around the world), someone would always come and return it to me by the end of the day.
Jerry also answered a question that Kaori and I had been wondering for quite some time. From the moment we landed in Kinshasa, we couldn't help but be amazed by the fantastic outfits we saw people wearing. People in Kinshasa like to look their best at all times, and we wondered why they were so fashionable. When Kaori had asked this question the previous day, it actually stumped Jerry quite a bit. His answer was that they would think about it, and come back with an answer the next day.
Kaori and I were surprised by his response, as we didn't intend it to be such a serious question. But we were happy when Jerry approached us and tentatively began to explain, "I will tell you my answer today, because it will be the same tomorrow..." He took a breath and continued,
"I cannot change the color of my skin. It is black. My people have been this way for a very long time. We are poor. We must find work, because if we don't, we will die. But it does not mean we must walk around like this [head hung low, shoulders slouching]. We can still walk like this [head up, back straight]. We want to look this way, and we want to look young." When I asked his friend Honore who was also standing there what he thought, he smiled and said "I think my idea is also the same."
I know I didn't catch all the nuances they were after, and I'm sure it wasn't something they felt very comfortable talking about. What I take away from this is that they are extremely optimistic people, maybe because they have to be. Music is by no means a path to greatness, fame, or money for them, but a way to keep their inner spirits alive and well, so that they are not only proud Congolese, but also kind and generous humans, who have the strength and capacity to process and reflect their emotions in a deep and profound way.