A group of street musicians from the Congo, who live near the zoo in Kinshasa. The backbone of the group consists of four elderly singer-guitarists, each of whom can not move independently (in the youth they all had polio) and ride around in spectacularly modified wheelchairs. They are played along by a much younger rhythm section, consisting of former vagabonds, abandoned children, which older musicians took under their care. The 18-year-old guy who cuts out a stunning solo “under an electric guitar” is soloed on a single-stringed instrument, which he himself designed and made from a tin can………..
In n 2007, Staff Benda Bilili were playing to an audience of vultures and emaciated primates in Kinshasa’s desperate zoo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The band had never left the country, and this was their regular rehearsal space. When we met, most of them were either sleeping rough on cardboard boxes or in decrepit shelters for the disabled and making ends meet by busking or hawking cigarettes on the city’s toxic streets. Last September, the band headlined the Royal Albert Hall in London, the culmination of four astonishing years during which they played more than 400 concerts at every corner of the globe. Back home they bought new houses, Mercs, Bimmers, clothes, trilbies … even a new hotel.
There was a documentary film, Benda Bilili, charting their extraordinary success – made all the more extraordinary by the fact that several of the band were polio victims. But now Staff have fallen apart: singer and songwriter Coco Ngambali has quit, along with fellow vocalist Théo Ntsituvuidi, and a tour of top European venues scheduled for March and April has been cancelled. How did it all go so wrong?
“The lightning success of the band– the WOMEX Award, the Cannes Festival [where the award-winning documentary Benda Bilili became an unexpected hit in 2010], the standing ovations, all that – made some of the members think that everything would flow from the source, that the money would come in torrents, a notion fuelled by the greed of people who know nothing about the business but are always quick to proffer ‘good advice’”, wrote their former manager Michel Winter after recently throwing in the towel himself.
Winter, whose previous successes include the Roma band Taraf de Haïdouks and Konono No.1 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a veteran of the global music management game, had taken on Staff without signing a contract. A mistake perhaps, but one easily made, even in good faith. The job of fighting officialdom and corruption to get passports and visas, of moving eight Congolese musicians around the world, four in wheelchairs, one on crutches, of persuading venues to cater for their disabilities, of managing spiralling flows of money and meeting countless challenges day in day out, allows little time for procedural perfection.
The real problems appear to have coincided with the arrival of Maurice Ilunga, a Congolese local government administrator living in Paris. At the invitation of the group’s leader Ricky Likabu, Ilunga set up an NGO called Staff Benda Bilili in 2010 to funnel some of the band’s earnings into good causes in Kinshasa. The idea was met with all-round approval. “It was good to have someone who could advise them in their own language,” says Florent de la Tullaye, the co-director of the Benda Bilili film. “And the NGO was very important. Ricky had been talking about it for a long time. It was close to his heart."It seems, however, that as the pace of success accelerated, Likabu became increasingly suspicious that the band were not being paid their dues. In some ways, suspicion was inevitable. The bald truth is that the western music industry makes little or no sense to the neophyte, especially one from a completely different culture who speaks a different language. How do you explain that if a venue pays a handsome fee to book a band such as Staff Benda Bilili, less than half of it will find its way in the pockets of the musicians? The rest is eaten up by transport costs, per diems, manager’s percentage, agent’s percentage, insurance, tax, crew salaries and so on. Needs must. The manager has to live. The agent has to live. The crew have to live. The musicians have to be transported, accommodated, fed. The west "eats” money in a way that Africa doesn’t.
And how to explain that nobody ever gets paid for doing promotional work? Or that if the band perform in a country where they’re less well known, they get paid less?Or that online piracy has killed the recorded music industry and record sales are just a fraction of what they used to be 10 years ago? Or that a film can be feted all over the world, but the distributors will get most of the money it makes? Or that success is relative and although Staff Benda Bilili get standing ovations in prestigious venues all over the world, they are not and will never be in the same commercial league as Rihanna or Emeli Sandé, because they sing “niche” music in a foreign language? How do you explain all that?
It seems to have baffled Likabu and baffled Ilunga too, who had no previous experience in the music industry. But Likabu lent his ear to Ilunga and began berating Winter about a host of gripes and supposed misdemeanours. There has been talk of Ilunga ringing up promoters and demanding to know how much the band were being paid. The promoters were then apparently ringing up the band’s agent, Yorrick Benoist at Run Productions, and asking who Ilunga thought he was. Some claim he started acting like the band’s manager, piling on demands while Likabu urged him on.
The band was earning good money, but it wasn’t enough. Each musician had a huge extended network of family and friends at home to support. They were also well aware that success had arrived late in life and time was against them. A new sense of urgency grew, as did the suspicions and machinations. The old sense of common purpose and harmony began to turn sour.
When I call Ilunga to get his version of events, he is plainly riled. At first he denies that Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi have quit, or that the forthcoming European tour has been cancelled. “The band know nothing! No one gives them any information,” he tells me at a galloping pace. “And no payments either. Salaries for 40 concerts in Europe and the US in 2012 haven’t been paid to the band. And where’s the contract? No one works in the music business without a contract.”
All his accusations are denied by Winter and Benoist. The band were paid for their gigs in Europe and the US. It’s just that, as Winter insists was preagreed, their wages were lower than usual because the fees were lower, especially in the US where Staff Benda Bilili were still relatively unknown. He also insists that they have been given information, lots of it. Whether they have digested it is another matter. And the contract? Winter maintains that he did offer a management contract to the band, but that it never got past Likabu, who refused to sign it because it was in the name of all the members of the band rather than himself alone. It seems that Likabu’s toughness may have been galvanised by all the stress into impatience and imperiousness. Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi started to get fed up with the atmosphere. Ilunga organised a disastrous trip to the Antilles, where the band were stitched up by a dodgy local and left high and dry at the airport without a return flight or a hotel. They blamed Winter, even though he had advised the band not to go. Winter travelled to Kinshasa to try and make peace and sort out the contract issue. Likabu and a few other members of the band rounded on him, calling him a no-good whip-cracking Belgian colonial slave-master and demanded extra money for previous tours. Likabu announced that he was no longer working with Winter, and in response Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi left the band. That was in early January this year. A few days later Run productions cancelled the European tour.When I finally get through to Ngambali after days of trying, he confirms the news. He has quit. So has Ntsituvuidi. Why? “Bad administration,” he answers succinctly before going on to tell me that he’s already formed a new band with Ntsituvuidi and the percussionist Cubain Kabeya. “We’re rehearsing right now,” he tells me over the honeyed sound of a rhumba guitarist in the background. So Staff Benda Bilili, at least as we have known and loved them for the past few years, are no more. The tragedy is that this story follows a tortured template established long ago – one that feels all too familiar to me, as someone with 25 years’ experience of working in this area, including a six-year spell managing the Tuareg band Tinariwen. Bands arrive from Africa with high hopes of Western showbiz. They see success in the applause of their audiences, but the dreamed-of financial rewards remain out of reach as unavoidable costs eat them away. Suspicion grows, partners are blamed, friendships turn sour and the dull and bitter reality dawns: Europe won’t make you fabulously rich, it just might, if you’re lucky, allow you to make a living from your music……………the Guardian review……..
Benda Billili σημαίνει «δες παραπέρα», στην τοπική κονγκολέζικη γλώσσα Lingala. Το ντοκυμανταίρ που θα προβληθεί αφηγείται την ιστορία πέντε παραπληγικών μουσικών που ζουν στην περιοχή γύρω από το ζωολογικό κήπο της Κινσάσα του Κονγκό και των παιδιών του δρόμου που τους βοηθούν. Ανάμεσα στους τελευταίους είναι ο νεαρός Roger Landu, ο οποίος «υιοθετείται» από τους μεγαλύτερους και εξελίσσεται σε εξαιρετικό σολίστ. Ξεπερνώντας τις δυσκολίες των κινητικών προβλημάτων, της απόλυτης έλλειψης υλικών μέσων αλλά και ενός περιβάλλοντος επικίνδυνου και ασταθέστατου, το συγκρότημα κατορθώνει να μεταφέρει τη μουσική του σε ένα διεθνές κοινό και να γίνει σύμβολο της ελπίδας. Το φιλμ προβλήθηκε στο Φεστιβάλ Καννών 2010 στα πλαίσια της ενότητας ανεξάρτητων δημιουργών Directors’ Fortnight. • Η δισκογραφία του γκρουπ περιλαμβάνει μέχρι σήμερα δύο άλμπουμ, αμφότερα για λογαριασμό της βελγικής εταιρείας Crammed Discs: Très Très Fort (2009) και Bouger Le Monde (2012).
• Το 2006, πριν από τη διεθνή αναγνώρισή τους, οι Staff Benda Bilili ενεπλάκησαν σε μια περίεργη διαμάχη με τη Αντιπροσωπεία του ΟΗΕ στη Λαϊκή Δημοκρατία του Κονγκό (MONUC), που χρησιμοποίησε το τραγούδι τους “Allons Voter” («Πάμε να ψηφίσουμε») σε μια τεράστια καμπάνια ενθάρρυνσης του κόσμου να προσέλθει στις κάλπες, στις πρώτες ελεύθερες εκλογές στη χώρα μετά από δεκαετίες πραξικοπημάτων και πολιτικής αστάθειας. Το τραγούδι είχε τεράστια απήχηση στους ψηφοφόρους, αλλά τα μέλη του συγκροτήματος έλαβαν αμοιβή 50 δολαρίων ο καθένας τους! Αξίζει να επισημάνουμε ότι σε ανάλογη διαμάχη με τον ΟΗΕ είχε εμπλακεί παλαιότερα και άλλος μουσικός με πολιομυελίτιδα, ο Βρετανός Ian Dury, στον οποίο είχε ανατεθεί να συνθέσει ένα τραγούδι για το Έτος προς τιμήν των Ατόμων με Αναπηρία (1981) κι εκείνος έγραψε το “Spasticus Autisticus”, προκαλώντας την οργή των ιθυνόντων του οργανισμού, λόγω των καυστικών στίχων του και κυρίως για τη χρήση της λέξης «σπαστικός», που θεωρούνταν ταμπού για τα άτομα με αναπηρία.
• Η μεγάλη φυσιογνωμία των Staff Benda Bilili είναι ο βενιαμίν του γκρουπ (και χωρίς κινητικά προβλήματα), Roger Landu, ο οποίος παίζει ένα όργανο δικής του επινόησης, ονόματι satongé, ένα μονόχορδο με ηλεκτρική ενίσχυση, το οποίο κατασκεύασε μόνος του από μια παραπεταμένη κονσέρβα γάλατος. Τα σόλο του με αυτό το ιδιόφωνο ακούγονται σαν ηλεκτρική κιθάρα!…Onassis Στεγη…………….. Staff Benda Bilili, who’ve been acclaimed by the likes of Africa Express and Damon Albarn are the latest phenomenon to come out of the Congo. Staff Benda Bilili, who’ve been acclaimed by the likes of Africa Express and Damon Albarn are the latest phenomenon to come out of the Congo. A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in and around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, they make music of astonishing power and beauty. The band’s mesmerising grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals , mix 70s funk, old Cuban son and mambo with the mellifluous flow of classic Congolese rumba that evoke the golden age of Franco. Four veteran singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are 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. Staff Benda Bilili were introduced to the British and US musicians who visited Kinshasa as part of the Africa Express trip in Nov 2007, and won the admiration and hearts of the likes of Massive Attack and Damon Albarn. 'That was beautiful,’ said [Massive Attack’s] Robert del Naja, visibly moved. 'It was worth coming all this way just to hear that’……..BBC Review…………….
The explosive debut album from Staff Benda Bilili is perhaps an example of African street music at its finest. The sound is a curious mix of Afro- Rumba, Latin Rhythms and rich vocal harmonies. Each track is diverse, vibrant and wholly unique yet the album retains a uniformity of sound and style that is both interesting and infectious.
Staff Benda Bilili hail from the streets of Kinshasa. A group of disabled musicians form the core of the band. Backed by a younger, acoustic rhythm section and a hand made, electric one string lute called the Satonge. The sound of which is slightly comedic at points yet never over bearing.
Whilst their sound is unlike any thing else, there is a familiar rough authenticity in the rhythm and lyrics, comparable in style at points to Buena Vista Social club and at others Fela Kuti. The age and experience of the older musicians is prevalent throughout, evident in the steadiness and timing that gives the music so much of its character.
The craftsmanship of this album is remarkable. The diversity of styles is a testament to the musicianship to the group. From the Afro-Cuban Polio to the hard-edged African beats of Avramandole. The production itself was recorded outside, giving the album the feel of a live session.
Staff Benda Bilili roughly translates as 'Look Beyond Appearances’. Their music is a testament to that, in its ability to be so many things at the same time. This is a remarkable debut that will no doubt earn Staff Benda Bilili much deserved attention and respect. –Johnny Lais………….
Forget the Buena Vista Social Club. If you want a heart warming tale of musical success in the face of extreme adversity then buy this CD and listen to the sound of these paraplegic street musicians from Kinshasa, Congo and their rhythm and blues, funk inflected rumba.
Recorded out in the open, mainly in the zoological garden in Kinshasa using 12 microphones, a laptop and a 100m mains cable stealing electricity from a deserted bar this album captures the sound of Staff Benda Bilili on their home turf.
Comprising of 4 senior singer/guitarists perched on their customised tricycles, a younger rhythm section and 17 year old Roger who uses a unique one stringed electric lute he made himself using a length of electrical wire attached to a small wooden bow and then inserted in a metal dried milk can which he calls a Satonge, this album is raw yet oozes soul, positivity and vibrancy.
`Je T'Aime’, my personal favourite, takes it’s cue from James Brown with it’s infectious groove, `sex machine’ refrain, Roger’s Hendrix like riffing and a soul vocal that makes me want to cry and dance simultaneously.
`Polio’ is a slow heartfelt, yet amazingly unbitter, appeal to the listening public recommending vaccination against poliomyelitis and coming from a band, half of whom have lost the use of their legs because of the disease, it’s a message that carries some serious weight.
As with much Rumba music you are never far away from the sound of Cuba which the Congolese musicians of the 50’s and 60’s reappropriated and this is most evident on the laid back `Sala Keba’ as is a love of reggae on the skanking `Sala Mosala’.
Mostly the album consists of up-tempo dance numbers designed to make you shake it and that’s what I suggest you do whilst giving thanks that you are able to………………By Audio Texture…………
It’s safe to say there’s never been a group quite like Staff Benda Bilili. Most of the bandmembers are polio victims confined to customized tricycles, except for the youngest, 17-year-old Roger Landu, who plays a one-string lute he made himself. Recorded in the Kinshasa zoo, where the members spend most of their time, using electricity stolen from another building, this is a disc filled with ambient noise – and some wonderful music. Much of it, unsurprisingly, is Congolese rhumba, as on “Moto Moindo.” The four singer/guitarists harmonize liltingly, but the real instrumental star is Landu, who flicks out riffs and solos on his instrument like a virtuoso. The band does mix up the sound, offering some light funk on the track named after themselves and on “Je T'Aime,” and some reggae inflections on “Sala Mosala.” There’s a very positive attitude throughout the songs: these guys might be handicapped, but it’s not going to stop them. The musicians are remarkable, the guerrilla recording just about perfect. But the real gift here is the music…. by Chris Nickson……allmusic………..
The debut album by Staff Benda Bilili was produced by Vincent Kenis, already responsible for introducing and producing Konono No1, Kasai Allstars and the Congotronics series. The songs were recorded out in the open, mainly in the zoological garden near centre ville, using a dozen microphones (one of them formerly used by Jacques Brel, which greatly impressed Ricky), a MacBook and a 100m extension cord fraudulously connected to a deserted refreshment bar nearby.
Overdubs were done in a living room, the acoustics of which were ideally damped by very large salmon-tinted sofas and a number of empty beer bottles. The unpredictable electrical supply gave us plenty of time to rehearse between takes, which led Coco, who was new to overdubbing, to come up with great guitar parts. Alas, those on Tonkara were lost forever: the producer had the strange idea to save them on his iPod, which was stolen shortly after… he was so embarrassed that he tried to play them himself on the guitar from memory, hoping the musicians wouldn’t notice. Of course it didn’t work.
Other unexpected guests on this album include the great Tandjolo Premier from Kasaï Allstars, who came passing by during the sessions to show us his new lokombe (giant slit drum); the toads featured on Polio, who have a permanent artist residence in the Jardin Zoologique; and the omnipresent rumbling from the most worn-out car fleet in the world. Play it Très Très Fort.
The four videos which are included in the CD were directed by Belle Kinoise aka Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, who encountered the band while they were filming their Jupiter’s Dance documentary in Kinshasa. Florent and Renaud have been following the band since 2004 and are working on a feature-length film devoted to Staff Benda Bilili. The Polio video was shot during the recording sessions in Kinshasa’s zoological garden, Je t'aime and Tonkara were shot during rehearsings, while Staff Benda Bilili, a trailer for the film, condenses the band’s story in 2:35. We are all going to buy this wonderful record, we are going to share it with our friends, and – hey presto – we will have the Buena Vista Social Club of the brave new Obama age… Album Of The Year : signed, sealed and delivered (Songlines, UK)
Combine reggae, rumba, soul and funk with traditional African rhythms as accessibly and joyously as Bob Marley. Inspirational (Uncut, UK)
Staff Benda Bilili - The masters of survival, the sound of the ghetto… The musicianship is subtle and precise, forged by the group’s extraordinary work ethic, and their sound has a raw simplicity and uniqueness (…) Africa doesn’t need our pity. Africa demands and deserves our admiration and wonder, our humility and respect. Staff Benda Bilili embody this truth with total dedication and style (The Independent, UK)
A string of incredibly affecting songs that (…) draw on funk, soul and mambo while they deal with corruption, poverty, disease and the waste of lives they see around them every day… delivered with a devastating melodic ease; nothing is forced, everything just flows… Staff Benda Bilili are more of a force of nature than anything as prosaic as a group (Sunday Times, UK)
While this miraculously conceived project is no Congotronics… it has its own manifest charm. Rooted in the Congolese tradition of rumba rock and the influence of Rumble in the Jungle-era James Brown, there’s a wonderful warmth and an often ramshackle jollity to proceedings…beyond their inspirational story lies a CD… with it’s own magic (Observer Music Monthly, UK)
An extraordinary release with an equally extraordinary backstory (The Wire, UK)
There’s a certain extra rhythmic edge, an open-hearted enjoyment of beat… Staff Benda Bilili are good news. The name means (…) ‘put forward what is hidden’ – not to be hidden much longer, one might feel (fRoots, UK)
Even if the tale so far of Staff Benda Bilili wasn’t such an inspiring one, Très Très Fort still wouldn’t fail to melt the coldest of hearts… incredible (HMV Choice, UK)
Staff Benda Bilili croon beautiful harmonies accompanied by spare but perfectly suited instrumentation. These are musicians of extremely humble means who create startling warm and vital music from the barest of resources. It’s a compelling story for sure, but the music is superb enough to speak for itself (Pop Matters, USA)
Konono N°1 mastermind Vincent Kenis has done more than anyone else to bring weirdly beautiful homespun Congolese street music to the world’s attention. He’ll add another notch to his resume on March 23 when Crammed Discs releases the Kenis-produced Très Très Fort, the debut album from Staff Benda Bilili (Pitchfork, USA)
(The makeshift instrument) designed by young Roger Landu is particularly amazing. Made with a simple powder milk tin, a stick and a metal wire, plugged to a pedal and an amp, it generates a riotous guitar-like sound that would make Jimi Hendrix turn pale. (Volume/Les Inrockuptibles, France)
The sleevenote translations are invaluable, as these witty tunes relate everyday struggles… This is real street music that resounds with a lust for life (Metro, UK)
The sheer ingenuity of the instrumentation, especially (Roger) Landu’s plinky satonge, makes for idiosyncrasies…’Moto Moindo’ reaches velocity as the satonge gets faster and faster, ‘Sala Keba’ sounds like a Congolese response to a doowop – or vocal rhythm and blues – song. Astonishing (New Internationalist, UK)
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’. (Ian Birrell, The Independent)………….. Tracklist 1 Moto Moindo 2 Polio 3 Je T'Aime 4 Sala Keba 5 Moziki 6 Sala Mosala 7 Avramandole 8 Tonkara 9 Marguerite 10 Staff Benda Bilili 11 Mwana