The story of Staff Benda Bilili, as brilliantly documented in an acclaimed documentary film, is one of the most heartwarming narratives in contemporary African music. Formed in the Democratic Republic of Congo by a group of disabled musicians who had all suffered from polio in their youth (and with whom other bands frequently refused to work), the group recorded its tremendous first album Tres Tres Fort in a makeshift studio in the Kinshasa zoo. The album became something of a marketing triumph, leading the group to perform nearly 300 concerts to understandably rapturous audiences.
Bouger Le Monde, which translates as Make The World Move, essentially offers more of the wonderful same. Overall, it is perhaps more vibrant and energetic where Tres Tres Fort was more subtle and restrained. It attempts to capture the overwhelmingly joyful spirit and hard won pride of their live shows and it succeeds quite spectacularly. The sound is crisper and cleaner, with the prodigious Roger Landu’s satonge (a homemade one-stringed instrument made from a can and some wire) cutting right through the typically lively rhythm section to striking and sometimes visceral effect.
The inevitable influence of Franco and Congolese rumba remains intact, but this music has a relentlessness and power that not only draws from a wide variety of sources but also has a charisma and intensity which is entirely the band’s own. The opening Osali Mabe acts as a statement of intent – an unrelenting, insistent groove that is pretty much impossible to resist, and is performed with equal amounts of both emotion and accuracy. Equally elevating is the fast-paced, attacking Kuluna (Gangs), on which the band sound at once celebratory and confrontational. Libala Ya Mungwa has a chorus so thoroughly uplifiting it destroys any language barriers.
For a while, it feels as if the group’s now trademark party spirit might come to predominate at the expense of other moods or feelings. This band, wise and experienced well before they broke through internationally, of course know better than that. Souci, unfolding patiently and gracefully over more than six and a half minutes, offers a more melancholy tone, with a sense of longing and perhaps wistful nostalgia at its heart. Djambula is stranger and more mysterious, taking the band in a less familiar direction, and perhaps pointing beyond their comfort zone. Everywhere, the group’s vocal harmonies offer a distinctive richness and empathy.
If Staff Benda Bilili’s initial breakthrough felt like a triumph in the face of considerable adversity, then they are now deftly avoiding the trappings of success. It would be churlish to demand any more than what is provided here – superb playing and a peerless collective spirit, along with a clear and nuanced production that is never intrusive. The band have surely now transcended their compelling history.