The word ‘brave’ is all too often misapplied to musicians. Bands releasing new material are often credited with heading in a “brave new direction” or searching out a “brave new path”. In reality, these people are usually highly-paid rock stars living lives of nearly unimaginable luxury and fun.
But if you choose to use the word ‘brave’ in connection to a band, you could scarcely find a more deserving group than Staff Benda Bilili.
In a strictly non-Phil Collins way, SBB have gone against all odds to make music. Not only do they live in one of the world’s most dangerous, politically volatile and impoverished nations, but the core of the band are all paralysed, having suffered from Polio when they were children. Now in their middle ages, these four lead members have taken in street children and made them part of the band; Roger, one of these former ‘sheges’ (as they are known), is the band’s soloist, playing fantastic, distinctive solos on an electric lute he made himself out of a tin can and a guitar string. The band themselves have been homeless for some time, and spent many years living in a graveyard before moving to Kinshasa Zoo, where much of their début album Très Très Fort was also recorded.
Such is Staff Benda Bilili’s desire to make music that they are willing to defy the harshest and most unlikely odds to produce an album full of charm, catchy rhythms and brilliant invention. How appropriate, then, that the ‘Benda Bilili’ of their name translates as “look beyond appearances”.
Describing the music found on Très Très Fort is incredibly difficult. Mixing traditional Congolese rumba with elements of reggae, soul and blues, the band’s sound is truly inimitable (Ordinarily I recommend similar music at the bottom of these posts, in this instance I can’t think of anything remotely similar). The lyrics, sung in the group’s strongly accented French with snippets of other Congolese languages, are indecipherable to the untrained ear (although they offer poignance and humour if you can understand them), but what is undeniable is the energy the group manage to transmit. From the pounding ‘Avramandole’ to the joyous ‘Sala Mosala’, this group of extraordinary individuals can make you tap your toe and nod your head like very few others working anywhere in the world today.
The story of Staff Benda Bilili is so inspirational and heartrending that it may cause some to overlook the praise they’ve earned as pity or hype, but that would be a grave error indeed. Very few albums of the last few years have been as re-listenable as Très Très Fort, and while you might spend the first five seconds thinking about the strife and strain this album took to produce, the unique sound of the band and how much they’re enjoying playing completely takes your mind away from pain and suffering, much as I’m sure playing these songs did years ago for the embattled members of the group.
In addition to the fantastic album they’ve already produced, SBB have also embarked on a few tours to rapturous reception, and in their earlier days recorded a song encouraging the population of DR Congo to go and vote in the nation’s 2006 elections, which actually helped increase voter turnout.
Politics and disadvantages aside, Staff Benda Bilili are still a fantastic band. Not only are they incredibly courageous musicians who really are in it for the music, but they’re a band of true originals whose refusal to give up or cede to expectations has produced a fantastic record.
And everyone can agree: every success Staff Benda Bilili achieve, they richly deserve it. “Benda Bilili” indeed.
Best tracks: ‘Polio’, ‘Sala Mosala’, ‘Mwana’, Marguerite’.