WOMEX announced today the winners of the WOMEX 09 Award for artists: Staff Benda Bilili, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire). British writer Andy Morgan 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.”
The artists will perform at WOMEX 2009 Copenhagen during the Awards Ceremony on Sunday, 1 November 2009.
“Their story is about polio-ravaged limbs and survival in the toxic atmosphere of Kinshasa, one of the largest and most dysfunctional cities in Africa,’ continues Morgan. “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 Likabu, the bandleader. “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 its 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 ‘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 ‘Tres Tres 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. ‘Tres Tres 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
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 honor in recognizing Staff Benda Bilili. 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.”
Buy the album or MP3 download:
Photos: 1 – Ricky Likabu, 2 – Coco Ngambal