WOMEX 09 Award for Artists

WOMEX is proud to announce the winners... Staff Benda Bilili (DR Congo)

Staff Benda Belili
Pictures © Belle Kinoise

The artists will perform at WOMEX Copenhagen during the Award Ceremony on Sunday, 1 November 2009

We are used to honouring great artists at the end of long illustrious careers. This time, however, it might appear like we’re lionizing mere beginners. Therein lies a humbling lesson.

We'll let writer Andy Morgan take over from here. He spent time in Kinshasa with the artists and is writing the WOMEX Guide essay and Laudatio for the WOMEX Award presentation. "So often, by the time many groups play their first note on a European stage, they have already lived, struggled and suffered a tale of epic proportions," he says. "And no group could possibly illustrate this truism more effectively than Staff Benda Bilili.

"Their story is about polio-ravaged limbs and survivalStaff Benda Bilili in the toxic atmosphere of Kinshasa, one of the largest and most dysfunctional cities in Africa. It's about homelessness, ostracism, community, courage and music. Most of all, it's about a refusal to pity oneself. Papa Ricky and Coco Ngambali, the group's founders, decided long ago that disability only exists in the mind. They've clung tenaciously to this guiding principle, through years of grinding anonymity and busking for centimes outside fancy restaurants in Kinshasa's downtown or hawking chewing gum and cigarettes on exhausted roundabouts. A fortuitous meeting with two French filmmakers led to a contract with Crammed Discs and to the release of an acclaimed CD debut earlier this year. It's taken decades of faith, courage and facing down insurmountable odds for the band to crank their remarkable wheelchairs up the final ramp and onto a European stage."

"Our main influences lay in the street," revealed Ricky, the band leader. "We sleep there, eat there, rehearse there. The people around us - street kids, war refugees, prostitutes, orphans - are the true heroes of this country. They always tell us their stories, their hopes, their tricks to survive. We feel we must speak in their name, and in that sense we are the true journalists of Kinshasa."

Then he spoke of the group's influences, the musicians who mean the most to them. "Musically speaking we worship our Congolese fathers: Franco & Ok Jazz, Tabu Ley, Docteur Nico. James Brown is another great inspiration for us, we saw him play in Kinshasa in 1974. It was a true riot.

"In it's promotional material, Crammed Discs reveals, "Staff Benda Bilili consider themselves as the real journalists of Kinshasa, as their songs document and comment events of everyday life. One of their key messages is: The only real handicaps are not in the body but in the mind. Benda Bilili means Coco from Staff Benda Bilili'look beyond appearances' literally, 'put forward what is hidden.'"

So this year's prize celebrates the victory of reaching the starting line, or, as Andy Morgan puts it, "the end of a remarkable beginning." The group spokesman explains, "Why 'Très Très Fort'? Because, like all the people who live in the streets of Kinshasa, disabled or not, we have to be strong. We are neglected by the authorities and have to find ways to survive, no matter how. 'Très Très Fort' is our manifesto."

WOMEX seeks to recognize those who set the highest standards in world culture, who articulate not only in their music, but in their very lives, the richest values of our community," says WOMEX General Director Gerald Seligman. "Our yearly Award is neither lifetime achievement nor, necessarily, recognition of popularity. It is our chance to try to echo the motivations, the dedication, the principles and priorities of the artists and professionals who dedicate their lives to world music. In every way, Staff Benda Bilili sets the standard for such an objective. And there is an added value to awarding them for, in many ways, it is also the resilience of the Congo itself that we honour in recognizing SBB. The Congo has always been a musical powerhouse of Africa, supplying us with so many of that vast continent's greatest artists. It's so good to see the Congo back. And it's so wonderful that it should be back in the form of Staff Benda Bilili."

For photos and further promo material contact John Stevens of Crammed Discs.

For more information check out their webpage


A full feature in Songlines by our Laudatio writer Andy Morgan

Further Press Reviews

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Press Quotes

"We are all going to buy this wonderful record, we are going to share it with our friends, and - hey presto - we will have the Buena Vista Social Club of the brave new Obama age... Album Of The Year : signed, sealed and delivered."
Songlines, UK

"Staff Benda Bilili épate. Pour imposer le respect et garder la dignité, ils n'ont qu'une forme d'armes: des guitares. Sur des airs de rumba, de reggae et de funk, ils n'ont jamais cessé de chanter la nécessité de se battre, de travailler et de garder la tête haute face à l'adversité."

Marianne, France

"These are musicians of extremely humble means who create startling warm and vital music from the barest of resources. Making their story even more poignant is that these artists are paraplegics and polio victims. It’s a compelling story for sure, but the music is superb enough to speak for itself".

Pop Matters, USA

"Mehrere Generationen von querschnittsgelähmten Straßenkindern, die am Zoo von Kinshasa leben, schlossen sich zu einem Oktett zusammen und spielen ihre Version von Rumba, Afro-Son und Afro-Salsa.... ein erstaunliches Kollekti."

Blue Rhythm, Germany (CD Of The Week)

"Staff Benda Bilili - The masters of survival, the sound of the ghetto...The musicianship is subtle and precise, forged by the group's extraordinary work ethic, and their sound has a raw simplicity and uniqueness."

The Independent, UK

"A contemporary African classic." 

Telegraph, UK

"Les Congolais de Staff Benda Bilili frappent Très très fort. De leur apparence, de leurs corps tatoués par le handicap, ces hommes ont fait une formidable force de vie qui innerve ce premier album au sang chaud [...] Illustration supplémentaire du bouillonnement de la musique africaine contemporaine, lancée dans une incessante course à la modernité."
Les Inrockuptibles, France

"Even if the tale so far of Staff Benda Bilili wasn't such an inspiring one, Très très Fort still wouldn't fail to melt the coldest of hearts...incredible."

HMV Choice,UK

"L'album résonne immédiatement et durablement, moderne et roots à la fois [...] Lorsque les chanteurs entonnent leurs chants nostalgiques teintés de rumba, c'est comme une déflagration d'émotion qui se diffuse dans tout le corps. Staff Benda Bilili, Slumdog millionaire en version congolaise, ont beaucoup de choses à nous apprendre."
Vibrations, CH/Fr

"Les stars de Kinshasa la déglingue. Ils sont handicapés, survivent dans le rues de la capitale congolaise et s'apprêtent à conquérir le public européen.. [...] Lorsque Roger eut l'idée d'électrifier son satongué, ce fut comme si Jimi Hendrix débarquait au milieu de l'équivalent congolais du Buena Vista Social Club [...] Ce surdoué rivalise avec les plus grands guitar heroes du moment!"
Le Monde 2, France

"An extraordinary release with an equally extraordinary backstory."
The Wire, UK