Staff Benda Bilili
Staff Benda Bilili are like nothing you have ever seen or heard before.
A group of homeless and disabled musicians, who live in and around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa and play music of astonishing power and beauty. They are utterly unique and totally mesmerising. The group's rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals, remind you at times of James Brown and at other times of the Buena Vista Social Club. You can hear echoes of old-school rhythm and blues, then reggae, then no-holds barred funk.
Four singers and guitarists, sitting on makeshift wheelchairs and occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are weird, guitar-like solos performed by a 17 year-old prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can and the strut of a basket. Indeed, all the group's instruments were hand made in their homeland of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo except for the drummer's plastic chair and the producer/engineer's laptop, which nevertheless both take an notable part in the group's highly distinctive sound.
Staff Benda Bilili were introduced to the British and US musicians who came to visit Kinshasa as part of the Africa Express trip last Winter, and won the hearts of the likes of Massive Attack and Damon Albarn, with whom they jammed. The story was told in an article which appeared in March in UK daily The Independent:
It was a perfect moment, symbolising the purpose of the Africa Express trip to the Congo: some of the most celebrated musicians in Africa and the West playing with members of Staff Benda Bilili, a group formed by homeless and disabled polio victims living in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo. It was unrehearsed, teetered on the edge of disaster, yet inspirational. (...)
The band swayed in time in their antiquated wheelchairs, while a couple of kids danced around. It was achingly lovely music, created out of the most terrible adversity. 'That was beautiful,' said [Massive Attack's] Robert del Naja at the end, visibly moved. 'It was worth coming all this way just to hear that'
The debut album by Staff Benda Bilili is being produced by Vincent Kenis (already responsible for introducing and producing Konono N1, Kasai Allstars etc), and will come out on Crammed Discs. Parisian filmmakers La Belle Kinoise are producing a feature film centered on the band, which tells their unique story and features their soulful music.