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Staff Benda Bilili - Trés Trés Fort

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Artist: Staff Benda Bilili

Album: Trés Trés Fort

Label: Crammed Discs

Review date: Mar. 23, 2009


Staff Benda Bilili - "Sala Keba" (Tres Tres Fort)


Congolese guitar music has taken many turns in the last 50 years, much as its homeland has renamed itself from the Belgian Congo to Zaire and back to Congo, and its capital switched from lauding King Leopold of Belgium to memorializing the ancestral village of modern Kinshasa. The relatively young band Staff Benda Bilili draws upon this long history while pulling the music in some new directions.

First, though, the newsy bits: The members of the band are all paraplegics (due to polio, which is still endemic in much of Africa) who live on the streets of Kinshasa, making their living with a combination of performing and begging, and serving as counselors and protectors of the city’s numberless street kids (shege in Lingala). Their daily grind permeates Trés Trés Fort, a collection of songs recorded live at various spots around the city, complete with birds, frogs, insects, even babies.

Disheveled and disabled, as they might be Staff Benda Bilili remain excellent musicians with a deep knowledge of their music. The star of the band is surely Roger Landu, a 17-year-old street kid who plays the satonge, an electric musical bow that he built himself from a paint can, a flexible stick and a guitar string. The rest of the band is more conventionally instrumented, with acoustic or electric guitars, bass and a variety of drums. The satonge is higher pitched than the guitars, and since the pitches are selected by bending the stick and the string with one hand while picking with the other, the melodies slip and slide around the intonation of the guitars, producing a sound that is simultaneously familiar and otherworldly.

Staff Benda Bilili’s music is always grounded in African rumba, which in this case means nods to everyone from Tabu Ley (“Polymyelite”) and early Franco (“Sala Keba”) to James Brown (“Je t’aime,” which quotes “Sex Machine”), pure salsa (“Moziki”), and even a bit of rap (“Staff Benda Bilili”) that is reminiscent of the Senegalese band Touré Kunda’s famous fuck-the-police song “Salaly Muhamed.” Most of the cuts are rumbas or derived from rumbas (“Mwana” is pure soukous, for example), but “Avramondale” has a strong Afrobeat feel, as if the band were channeling the speed and energy of Fela while maintaining their own musical identity through close vocal harmonies.

The four videos added to the end of the disc include footage of live performances plus the trailer for an upcoming documentary on the band by Belgian filmmakers Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret. Judging from the quality and creativity of their music, the wheel-bound members of Staff Benda Bilili are going places. In fact, according to their Myspace page, the film is supposed to be ready for a European tour this summer. For the time being, though, Congolese guitar fans on this side of the Atlantic will have to be satisfied with Trés Trés Fort.

By Richard Miller

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