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Staff Benda Bilili
Staff Benda Bilili, whose name literally means, ‘free yourself from appearances,’ to ‘look beyond the obvious’ is the most remarkable group ever! If you’ve never heard of them, you can’t imagine what you’re missing! Their music has nothing to do with surface, and everything to do with soul and infectiousness blending together for a real celebratory feeling towards life. Started in 2003, these former street musicians, who lived in the grounds surrounding Kinshasa Zoo in a sprawling ghetto of DR Congo, were discovered by French filmmakers visiting the region to make a film about the vast number of street musicians who were hoping to work their way out through music. Renaud Barrett subsequently decided to make a film about Staff Benda Bilili, Crammed Records released their debut album in 2009, and thanks to their film about the group, which, along with the group themselves, was a hit at Cannes 2010, we now, at last, have access to the creative outpourings of these inspiring, unique artists! Anything I could say about the group’s music and stage personas would be deeply inadequate. Suffice it to say that Staff Benda Bilili is THE act no one could possibly hope to follow!
Consider the facts that the core, senior members of this group are all survivors of polio who are unable to use their legs and their former home is the streets of a DR Congolese ghetto estimated to have at least 40,000 street children or shenges, then, put those facts momentarily out of your mind. If you remember them when you’re watching these uniquely impassioned, imaginative musicians and/or listening to their soul-stirring music, believe me, you’ll soon be immersed in what you’re hearing and nothing else! I don’t care who you are or what you like or think you like, you simply won’t be able to resist their music! Their suffering forms the basis of what they sing about and who they sing for, but really, it’s all about giving your all…
Which, is exactly what effervescent opening performer Fatoumata Diawara, in South African colours and thin, shell-trimmed plats offered us, as she stepped into the spotlight, electric guitar in hand, smile beaming. Never having seen Fatoumata before, I can confirm that the crowd was pretty much in her camp from early on, due to the strength of her songs and her personable performance of them, as she displayed an impressively wide scaling vocal range and agilely (and expertly) teased lines of varying melodic intensity from her guitar in tight accompaniment, via riffs oft suggestive of rippling sunlight.
Stating that she ‘ought to return with her band’ at the conclusion of her winning set, Fatoumata drew cheers and whoops of approval which were well warranted, given her personable performance and distinctive, high calibre songs and musicianship. Fatoumata Diawara is a performer to watch for.
Interval, then the men of the hour arrived onstage, the front line all rolling out in wheelchairs, apart from a feisty fellow on crutches whose enlivened eyes shone nearly as bright as the spotlights above him. The audience, predominant fan base in evidence, roared their approval, amid a veritable cornucopia of accents from around the globe. What an amazing moment, watching the radiant faces of these men, whose former lives must have been difficult beyond our imagining, basking in the radiance of such great triumph! That said, I quickly learned that the real reason for this wordless adulation was their music! Staff Benda Bilili are nothing if not all about their music! A heady mixture of Congolese rumba, Cuban inflections, R & B and old school Reggae, with a dose of JB thrown in for bad ass measure, this group knows how to stir a crowd until they’ve unwittingly and, rapidly leap-frogged past simmer and bounced right into boil! And boy, was the house boiling! I’ve never seen so many gaggles of Englishmen come as close to dancing en masse outside of WOMAD Charlton Park!
The core of this outstanding group centres round founding member Ricky Likabu, who does a fair share of the lead singing, though as many as five or six men sing at one time in rich harmony, and sometimes, the entire band, consisting of eight members, the younger four of which are all former shenges. Coco Ngambali, another vocalist, is the band’s chief composer, while Theo Nsituvuidi does lead soprano singing and guitar playing honours, with Djunan Tanga-Suele and Kamamba Kabose Kasungo adding their parts to the vocals. Young Roger Landu, himself a former shenge, invented his own instrument, which he dubbed his Santonge, consisting of a single guitar string stretched between the drum of a tin can and a wooden box inserted in its base, which, amazingly, gives off a varying lute/electric guitar sound, depending on how he adjusts it on one end as he plays. The band recognised his talent when they first saw him, and taught him song structure and melodies. Ricky adopted Roger some years ago and he’s since become an integral part of the band’s unique multi-layered sound. Add Paulin ‘Cavalier’ Kiara-Maigi on bluesy hot bass, and Montana Kinunu on percussion, the main, kit-portion of which looked to be home made, creating a distinctively hollow sound, and you’ve got an original group capable of out-playing the best of them. The core members, all formerly tricycle bound (some of them outrageously customised), share the band with their younger rhythm section, all happily cohabitating that uniquely soulful space that is Staff Benda Billili!
he group’s passionate rendering of the plaintive and humbling song, ‘Polio’ in which Ricky and the group plead with parents to get their children vaccinated, while thanking God for the gifts bestowed on them, i.e. education, allowing them to provide for their families, against a backdrop of beautiful harmonies, was one of the most moving highlights of this wondrous show. Other numbers from their sensational debut album, Staff Benda Bilili – Tres Tres Fort, such as ‘Je’T’Aime’, with its funky back-beats, over-laid with Roger’s Hendrix like fingering and deeply grooved singing from all, is one of the best examples of the group’s ability to make you want to laugh, cry and dance, all at the same time! Still more irresistibly compelling songs like ‘Moziki’ and ‘Staff Benda Bilili’, in which they ask how they’re going to change their own lives, and virtually each and every number before, after and in between these, got the crowd going and kept them buoyed up, until the very end, encores and all! Each and every member of the band danced vigorously throughout in his own fashion, many only from the waist up, to every song they played, leaving no excuses for the able-bodied before them!
In the knowing words of band singer Theo - ‘It’s patience that brought us here...Music is our life.’ Never having seen Staff Benda Bellilii perform live before, I must add that it was definitely worth the wait!
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