Staff Benda Bilili: See beyond appearances, look further

by Sofia Verzbolovskis

Staff Benda Bilili's first explosive, jaw dropping tour came to an end in Paris' Café de la Danse after more than a month of hypnotizing crowds throughout Europe with their towering energy and unfaltering charm.

Staff Benda Bilili is a group of homeless, paraplegic men emerging from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of sub-Saharan Africa's most impoverished countries. Singers Ricky Likabu, Theo Nsituvuidi, Coco Ngambali, Kabose Kabamba and Djunana Tanga grew up with polio in a country with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. The core of the band bonded through their common experiences of disability since other musicians refused to play with them. Yet, while their physical impairments might have been the reason they got together in the first place, today Staff Benda Bilili believes that disability exists in the mind not the body. Like Ricky and Kabose tell me, "the group's Lingala name means see beyond appearances, look further."

During the tour-closing concert, they hit everything from typical Congolese soukous to reggae, old-school R&B, Afro-Latin grooves and funk, with song "Je t'aime" paying homage to James Brown. Songs such as "Polio" and "Tonkara" exude unsentimental disappointment and gripe both through the lyrics and the slow, soulful, almost nostalgic harmonies- a sort of wake up call about the hard-hitting problems of Congo. One of the songs even urges parents to get their children vaccinated against polio. In "Moto Moindo" and "Marguerite," Roger Landu, Benda Bilili's youngest band member, writhes virtuoso solos with the satonge (an instrument designed by himself using an empty fish can, string and wood).

Each song busts out unexpected beats and rhythms with the thriving drums and horn-like guitars creating an irresistible polyrhythmic feel. Somewhere between Roger's crazy, Jimi Hendrix style satonge playing, Kabama's contagious energy, or the constant call and response, you realize that moving, jumping and dancing are in place.

Staff Benda Bilili want people to enjoy their vitality, soak up and dance their amazing music, but they also hope to spark inquisitiveness. "Even with a language barrier, we want people to go home and find out more about the meaning of our songs after they hear our music," Ricky says.

Their journey has been filled with countless hurdles and drawbacks, but they're finally getting their chance to open up a dialogue and incite an unforgettable dance revolution. Their first tour was evidence that a history of rampant poverty, mineral stripping, decades of colonialism, dictatorship, and civil wars, can still produce bold, inspiring art. Their music is at the heart of community life.

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