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Destined: Staff Benda Bilili

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Dusted’s Andy Freivogel profiles the handicapped Zaireian collective and Destined selection Staff Benda Bilili.

Destined: Staff Benda Bilili

Download "Moziki" by Staff Benda Bilili.

The music of Staff Benda Bilili will certainly captivate listeners in 2009 all by itself, but it’s unlikely that this band – nay, community – will achieve their deserved prominence without considerable focus on, and discussion of, their extraordinary circumstances. Formed by a group of hardened handicapped men in a section of Kinshasa that borders the city’s zoo (one can only imagine the ugly visual and psychic poetry of a zoological park in the middle of a wounded city near the center of one of Africa’s most troubled regions), Staff Benda Bilili (I’m told that “Staff” means “staff,” but “benda bilili” means “beyond appearances”) comes across as a society or way of life more than a combo.

Led by the steely-eyed Ricky, a veteran of Kinshasa’s streets with a reputation as a tough guy and a bit of a hustler, the group plays a lilting, gentile dance music that would seem to draw on Congolese rumba, Cuban son, and a healthy dose of regional and ethnic musics, including songs sung in the regional Yanzi dialect. It’s a stark contrast to the overdriven pulse of their “countrymen” (in fact, they still call where they live Zaire, but let’s face it: Europeans made up these countries) like Kasai All-Stars and Konono No. 1. While the former have introduced African trance music to the rest of the world, Staff Benda Bilili, despite their rough and tumble circumstances, are more like ambassadors dispatched from an era of the dancehall.

As the March release of the group’s album Tres Tres Fort (“Very Very Strong”) approaches, a film about the group has begun to make the rounds at film festivals. From the appearances of the trailer (above), Buena Vista Social Club it is not. There seems to be significantly more attention to the conditions in which these men – and the street children that have joined their ranks as carriers of the Benda Bilili torch – live and less focus on the kind of post-colonial slumming that, in Wim Wender’s exotic travelogue, featured Ry Cooder’s son towing along his doumbek to jam with septaugenarian Afro Cubans. It’s decidedly unlikely that African music dilettantes will take to the streets of Kinshasa to run with the paraplegic musicians of Staff Benda Bilili and their army of young war orphans (one of whom plays a handmade, one-stringed lute-like instrument with the precision of a Guitar Institute of Technology grad), but one can be assured that their uniquely Africa fusion music will find a larger audience.

While Ricky and his compatriots show a clear bond with the regional sounds that inform their repertoire, there is a surprisingly strong backbone to what they do, due in no small part to their circumstances (handicapped in a poor nation with little resources and many of those resources likely dedicated to the continent’s bloodiest insurgency) but also, perhaps, from the influence of funk and soul. Some of the ostinato guitar patterns and percussion rhythms bear a resemblance to the languid grooves of juju and Fuji found several nations to the north, and the refrain of the trailer’s soundtrack almost certainly quotes James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”

Monsieur Ricky and the band display a largely existential perception of themselves, proud of their achievements in the face of their own social and physical plight, but undeniably worldly and sophisticated.

“We must prove that people with a handicap can get the whole world on the dancefloor and, so, are hardly ‘disabled persons’.... Staff Benda Bilili is trés trés fort,” insists Ricky. When asked whether music has the power to heal, he replies “music does heal people, especially those who are torn apart by love, poverty, or madness, because music encourages socialization, not exclusion.”

The world will soon hear the music of Staff Benda Bilili, a band of men of all ages who are not disabled, but are simply musicians with handicaps. Staff Benda Bilili is very very strong.

By Andy Freivogel

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