Staff Benda Bilili are a group of paraplegic street musicians / polio victims who live in and around the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo, DR Congo. They make music of astonishing power and beauty. Four senior singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band. The group is backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats layered with weird, infectious 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.
The debut album by Staff Benda Bilili is produced by Vincent Kenis (responsible for introducing and producing Konono N°1, Kasaï Allstars and the Congotronics series) and will be out on the Crammed Discs record label at the beginning of April. The band has already been praised by the likes of Massive Attack, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc.) and the Independent (UK) while on a trip to Africa.
The songs were recorded out in the open, mainly in the zoological garden near centre ville, using a dozen microphones, a MacBook laptop, and a 100m mains cable fraudulently connected to a deserted refreshment bar nearby. Bilili consider themselves as the real journalists of Kinshasa because their songs document and comment events of everyday life, as well as giving all kinds of advice: the lyrics of one recommends vaccination against poliomyelitis, another states that the only real handicaps are not in the body but in the mind.
It is said that Kinshasa hosts more than forty thousand abandoned street kids, known as shegues. Fleeing poverty in the suburbs and family violence, shegues can be seen everywhere in the downtown (centre ville) area, waxing shoes, guarding vehicles in parking lots, selling pills and roasted crickets, begging for money, slaloming on the boulevard between brand new Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), U.N armored vehicles, battered taxis, and makeshift customized tricycles driven by intrepid paraplegic pilots.
When handicapés (disabled people) were exempted from tax in the Seventies, many turned their vehicles into pickups and used them to make a living transporting goods across the river between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Handicapés form the second most important group among the street outcasts of centre ville. Regrouped since colonial times around a hostel near the general hospital, they have a reputation of being loud, fearless, well-educated, and well-organized in a powerful syndicate called Plateforme. Many shegues benefit from their protection and advice.
Preorder the CD: Tres Tres Fort
Author: World Music Central News Department
World music news from the editors at World Music Central