Some years ago, Staff Benda Bilili were better known among the Kinshasa police than among music lovers. Even in a city dubbed ‘capitale de la musique’ (the capital city of music) by Congolese websites, it is not easy to become an artist if you come from a poor neighbourhood and you live on a wheelchair, as most of the eight band members do.
Notwithstanding the fact that their ‘rumba rock’-style music earned them national and international fame, Benda Bilili (a phrase that can be loosely translated from Lingala as ‘look beyond appearances’) continued to act as a spokesperson for the outcasts, including people with disabilities and shegués (street children, many of whom former child soldiers). In fact, Ricky, Theo, Coco, Kabose, Cavalier, Djunana, Zadis and Roger know full well what scratching a living on the street means.
Before their debut album ‘Très très fort’ (‘Very very strong’) came out in 2009, they were among the dispossessed, too: not one of them had a real house. Ricky, the lead vocalist, first met Coco, the guitarist and composer, on the ferry linking Kinshasa to Brazzaville, in the neighbouring Republic of Congo. They earned their living transporting goods between the two countries, since people with disabilities were exonerated from paying customs duties. Another band member, Roger, is a former shegué who was adopted by Ricky many years ago.
‘Très très fort’, before being mixed in Brussels, was recorded in a studio in the half-abandoned Kinshasa zoo, at night, hijacking electricity from a nearby building. Now things have changed: the band’s second album, ‘Bouger le monde’ (‘Shake the world’, released in September 2012) was recorded in a real studio and followed a successful tour in many foreign countries. After having struggled in 2009 to obtain the visas for their first concerts in France, the eight musicians performed in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, also taking part in the renowned Glastonbury Festival; in 2012 they went to the USA. A film about their story (also called ‘Benda Bilili’) premiered at Cannes 2010.
Renaud Barret, one of the film-makers and producers, together with Florent de la Tullaye, once said in an interview that he had met the band crew in 2004 almost by chance while filming another documentary in the DR-Congo’s capital city.
“The day after meeting them – De La Tullaye recalled in turn – we started filming”, but it took years to complete the film, and also the recording of the debut album. It was only in 2007 that the two men were able to come back with enough money to allow the musicians to fulfil their dream. “Living on the streets was literally eating them alive. It’s an endless war, and it’s very hard for people with disabilities to get around. They’re real supermen”, De La Tullaye told ‘National Geographic’.
This tough life also influenced Staff Benda Bilili’s music; their lyrics usually convey a clear message: everyone has disabilities, but they can be overcome. So the band tries to be an example to all the people living on Kinshasa’s streets, and to help them, for instance by funding, through their own NGO, a school that teaches professional skills (mechanics, carpentry, music and computer science) to street kids and people with disabilities.
Moreover, since many of the band members were struck by polio at an early age (‘Polio’ is also the title of one of their songs), they take part in global initiatives to eradicate this disease. Celebrity, of course, also improved their personal conditions: now every band member has a house, or is building one, and sends his children to school.
Staff Benda Bilili, who once described themselves as “the real journalists of Kinshasa”, since their songs deal with everyday life in the city, also sing about political themes. Their first ‘hit’ (for which they were paid a mere $50, while still living on the streets) was called ‘Let’s go and vote’ and was aimed at encouraging people to take part in the 2006 general elections. In their last album, a song called Kuluna lists the evils of Congolese society, focusing on local gangs.
As for the music, the Staff Benda Bilili sound is a result of many different traditions. The first is ‘classic’ Congolese music such as Papa Wemba and Franco Luambo, which gives the band’s songs a melanchonic tone often perceived by Westerners as ‘blues’. They have also been influenced by funk, rumba, rock, and reggae. In both their albums, Staff Benda Bilili have a sound of their own; as lead singer Ricky put it in a recent interview, they play “all kinds of music”, they are not “Congolese musicians, but world musicians”.