As recently as five years ago, Staff Benda Bilili were street musicians in Kinshasa, sleeping on cardboard, rehearsing at the city zoo and somehow making extraordinarily uplifting music from the twin hardships of poverty and polio. In 2011, they are still singing the same songs, but they are now one of London’s hottest tickets. This special show sold out with impressive speed and the band would now appear to be big business. Their name literally translates as revealing ‘what is hidden’ – they are a band that can be legitimately described as esoteric. They remain passionately committed to drawing attention to just some of the many issues affecting their society, whilst at the same time throwing the biggest party the wonderful Union Chapel is ever likely to see.
Before all that, there is a story to tell. This show begins with a special gala screening of a documentary film, Benda Bilili, that premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and that finally gets a full UK release on Friday 18th March. The band’s story is a PR dream, and the documentary makers (who are never themselves on screen) are completely upfront that they have invested their own money in the group, and therefore have a very clear interest in their success. This shouldn’t be seen as an objective study of music making in Kinshasa (indeed, there is little attempt to place Staff Benda Bilili’s music in any context other than their own personal stories). However, there is little doubt that the group’s history and slow journey to international success is both affecting and inspiring.
The film focuses in on the key figures in the band – including its committed and energising leader Papa Ricky and the teenage prodigy Roger, who is introduced to the band by the film makers. Ricky inspires the band with a dedicated and admirable work ethic. This is the only possible means the band have of supporting their families, and everything depends on the band’s success. Roger, meanwhile, is also enterprising. He has made a one stringed instrument called a satonge from a tin can, some curved wood and some wire. It eventually becomes the signature part of the group’s sound. The film’s narrative is gently compelling and entertaining, although it doesn’t flinch from some of the problems of life in Kinshasa, including crime and disaster (one early recording session is interrupted by news that the shelter for homeless polio sufferers that is essentially the band’s home has burned down).
There are some wonderful moments. Young Roger is instructed by his mother that his brothers have all failed and that he must now support the family by ensuring that the band gets to Europe. After a long lecture, he simply rises from his seat and sardonically says: ‘Well, thanks for the advice. That was all very helpful’. Ricky provides the group with an unwavering optimism, Roger offers some youthful confidence and idealism. The film gives the impression that the band simply had to be successful – there was no other option. Towards the end, there is some breathtaking concert footage.
The band’s performance gives little hint of how far they have travelled from their roots. The songs still warn parents to vaccinate their children against polio, and castigate those who are quick to judge those living on the streets. Their customary modified bicycles may have been substituted by wheelchairs for this performance, but their original instruments remain. Roger is still playing a tin can satonge, whilst the drum kit is made entirely from wood and scrap metal.
Whilst the Tres Tres Fort album has its moments of relative calm, the show is a celebratory triumph from start to finish, the band having boundless energy and conviction. The music is a spectacular fusion of Congolese rumba rhythms, western funk and psychedelia. The combination of the vocals of the group’s frontline is glorious. Some of the showmanship appears to have been toned down just a little. Whilst Roger still patrols the stage as if it were his birthright, he no longer rolls on the floor ecstatically. The music still sounds every bit as phenomenal though, and the scenes inside the Union Chapel are quite wonderful.
It’s a remarkably mixed audience – young and old. By about halfway through the set, there’s a considerable throng of people away from the pews dancing directly in front of the stage. Everyone is out of their seats, filled with the excitement and overpowering joy of this music. A front row guest is waving his walking cane and dancing with the others. The abundant message from this band is that anyone can achieve their dreams. This may or may not be true for everyone – but it’s an amazing experience to buy into it for a couple of hours, and the band’s success story certainly puts mundane complaints into clearer perspective.
Staff Benda Bilili return to London to play the Roundhouse in May as part of a UK tour that also takes in Birmingham, Manchester and Gateshead. Further information at their website.