One of the great global success stories of the past three years, Staff Benda Bilili have become an unstoppable force. A group of street musicians who used to live & play around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo, they make music of astonishing power and beauty. The band’s mesmerising rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals and extraordinary tin-can guitar solos, have been dazzling audiences and media the world over, on record, on stage and on the big screen.
Four paraplegic singer/guitarists form the core of the band, assisted by a ‘hype man’ on crutches who whips the crowd into a frenzy, and backed by an all-acoustic rhythm section pounding out tight grooves. Then, on top of everything, are those inimitable and infectious solos performed by a teenage prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.
Staff Benda Bilili ripped through Europe for the first time in late 2009, spreading the word about debut album 'Très Très Fort' with one of the most talked-about tours of 2009. The continent's media responded in a chorus of praise, with top TV shows (including BBC Newsnight), broadsheet newspapers and world-renowned radios lavishing the band and their album with attention and end-of-year plaudits.
“Benda Bilili”, a documentary film on the band shot over several years by French filmmakers Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, premiered at the prestigious “Director’s Fortnight” event at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The band proved to be one of the sensations of the festival, with reviews describing them as “The Kinshasa social club” (The Times), and the film as “a rousing depiction of unimaginable poverty and transcendent resolve” (Hollywood Reporter) as well as “a remarkable documentary and an amazing music film" (Telegraph). The film went on to be released across Europe and the US, garnered a significant success, and contributed to making Staff Benda Bilili one of the most emblematic African bands around the world.
Staff has gained worldwide recognition including the 2009 WOMEX artist of the year award and voted as “Best Group” in the Songlines Music Awards 2010. Since 2009 Staff have been touring extensively in Europe, Japan and Australia, playing many of the largest festivals incl. Glastonbury, WOMAD, Roskilde among numerous others.
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".
This extraordinary group was encountered in 2005 by Florent de La Tullaye and Renaud Barret, two young French filmmakers who were shooting a series of films on the many musicians and other amazing figures living and working in the urban jungle of Kinshasa. They were instantly blown away by Staff Benda Bilili, and quickly decided to devote an entire feature film to the band. They also introduced the band to Crammed Discs in-house producer Vincent Kenis. Crammed decided to sign the group, produce the album and release it to the world.
The resulting album, “Tres Tres Fort”, was recorded in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo under the guidance of Vincent Kenis, then mixed in Brussels. So, this remarkable musical adventure commenced. The media went crazy, and Staff Benda Bilili have been featured and praised in newspapers worldwide. International festivals are queuing up to book them, and the band's first extensive European tour took place in the autumn of 2009.
Staff Benda Bilili were introduced to the British and US musicians who came to visit Kinshasa as part of the Africa Express trip in Nov. 2007, and won the hearts of the likes of Massive Attack and Damon Albarn, with whom they jammed. Here's an account of that meeting, as published in UK daily newspaper The Independent:
It was a perfect moment, symbolising the purpose of the Africa Express trip to the Congo: some of the most celebrated musicians in Africa and the West playing with members of Staff Benda Bilili, a group formed by homeless and disabled polio victims living in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo. It was unrehearsed, teetered on the edge of disaster, yet inspirational. (...) The band swayed in time in their antiquated wheelchairs, while a couple of kids danced around. It was achingly lovely music, created out of the most terrible adversity. 'That was beautiful,' said [Massive Attack's] Robert del Naja at the end, visibly moved. 'It was worth coming all this way just to hear that'.
It is said that Kinshasa hosts more than 40 000 abandoned street kids, or sheges. The name supposedly hints at the Che-Guevaresque child soldiers who seized the capital in 1997, but the story might have been forged later as a reminder of Laurent Désiré Kabila's connection with Che Guevara in the Sixties. Fleeing poverty in the suburbs and family violence, sheges can be seen everywhere in centre ville, waxing shoes, guarding vehicles in parking lots, selling pills, cola nuts and roasted crickets, slaloming on the boulevard between brand new SUVs, U.N armored vehicles, battered taxis, and customized tricycles driven by intrepid paraplegic pilots.
When handicapés (disabled people) were exempted from customs 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 its sister capital 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 for being loud, fearless, well-educated, and well-organised in a powerful syndicate called Plateforme. Many sheges benefit from their protection and advice.