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.

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