I’d never heard of the Congolese group by the name of Staff Benda Bilili until an envelope containing their new CD landed on my desk. I always get a little shiver of excitement when I get one of these padded envelopes, because I know there’s new music inside from somewhere in Africa. So many places, traditions, new creations. I open the package and see a colorful, glossy, tri-fold CD that shows eight guys striking bold poses and sporting flashy guitars, wheelchairs, crutches, and canes. Behind the group is a big earth-shaped image with the band’s name and album title, Bouger le Monde (French for “Shake the World”).
I rip off the plastic wrap with my teeth, stick the CD in the player, and ceremoniously place my headphones on. Then I push play on “Track 1”, a song called “Osali Ma Be” that translates from Lingala as “You’ve Done the Wrong Thing.” Instantly, I am pulled deeper into my headphones by the magnetic soukous beat made by drums and guitar that the Congolese are so famous for, and then followed by the supplication in local French of the singer to his lover: “Why are you leaving? Why are you running away? Come back, come back, my love.” A descending rhythmic arpeggio responds with what sounds like an electric guitar on steroids, and then the full band and chorus launch in with the chorus, “You’ve Done the Wrong Thing.” I can’t remember for sure, but I think I actually jumped out of my chair and danced through that whole first piece.
I receive a promotional CD often enough, and though I start out with the same great excitement to hear it–as I did when I got Benda Bilili’s–its not a guarantee that I’m going to love it. But there is something special about the sound of this music that I couldn’t quite place my finger on . . . until they came to DC and showed me. On October 21st, the band came through D.C. and played at the Howard Theater. My VOA colleague Jackson Mvunganyi and I grabbed our gear, and got to the site before the show for an interview in the green room. The band speaks French and Lingala, so I had to conduct the interview in French – fun for me, but perhaps not for some of you non-French speaking fans, so if you’d like the English transcription, send me a message in my comment section and I’ll make it available to you. As you’ll see in this interview, the reason the Benda Bilili sound is so distinctive is because all of their instruments are handmade from local materials like powdered milk cans, umbrella spindles, local wood, etc. Furthermore, these musicians have been playing together since they were youngsters and in very special circumstances.
Check out our slideshow of the night:
Most of the group have severe physical disabilities and grew up in the streets of Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (D.R.C.) national capital, where les handicappes or les invalides, as they describe themselves, usually do. More times than not, the physically impaired in the D.R.C. and in many other parts of Africa have little chance of making a living beyond begging in the streets. But as Ricky, the leader of the band, tells us, he had a vision from an early age that he and his long-time friends were going to make really good music and tour the world. At first, he explains, everyone mocked him and he was excluded from the mainstream music scene. But Ricky’s perseverance and talent proved to win out against all odds. Watch the video and enjoy the concert footage with me right here:
By the way, it is common for Congolese musicians to use locally-made instruments for rehearsal purposes, then to rent professional versions just for their concerts. But Staff Benda Bilili prefers the sound and feel of their own local instruments all the time. Here is the music video of “Osali Ma Be”, the opening track of Bouger le Monde:
By measure of both excellent music and indefatigable human spirit, Staff Benda Bilili has quickly risen to the top of my list of contemporary African music treasures and definitely shaken our world here in D.C.