Live Music + Gig Reviews

Staff Benda Bilili @ Union Chapel, London

20 July 2014

Staff Benda Bilili Anyone with even a passing interest in world music is probably already familiar with the remarkable story of Staff Benda Bilili. It’s not every day you come across a group of paraplegic musicians rehearsing in Kinshasa Zoo, augmented by a homeless teenager playing his own invented instrument, but that’s exactly what happened to Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, a specialist in Congolese music, back in 2005 while visiting the African nation’s capital. Recognising the group’s infectious energy immediately, he embarked upon a painstaking series of recordings, culminating in the critically lauded Tres Tres Fort album and a documentary film – Benda Bilili! – that was shown at the 2010 Cannes Festival.

Despite this initial fairytale, the band that appeared on stage at the enduringly wonderful Union Chapel on Sunday evening was a very different beast to the wide-eyed collective that first entered the business nearly a decade ago. Since their second album, 2012’s less well received Bouger Le Monde, Staff Benda Bilili have been consumed by rows over management and money, which led to the departure of several members including the guitarist, singer and songwriter Coco Ngambali.

Yet it only took a handful of songs to realise that this second incarnation of Staff Benda Bilili, with a number of new musicians, are as irresistibly buoyant as ever. After the perfect first song – Tres Tres Fort’s Sala Mosala, with its joyous spoken word intro – the intensity of the performance ramped up quickly and it wasn’t long until the whole audience was dancing. The group’s four wheelchair-bound singers, including founder Ricky Likabu, remain impressively uninhibited by their disabilities and moved enthusiastically in time to the music, still a quintessentially Congolese blend of rumba and R&B with a dashing of reggae for good measure.

Above it all, former street child Roger Landu’s unique satonge was more prominent than ever. It may be plugged into an amplifier these days rather than being mere tin cans and string – Landu was briefly bemused when the amp temporarily died on him mid-song – but its piercing, discordant yet still strangely melodic tones are what set Staff Benda Bilili’s sound apart from other African acts. With occasional turns as lead vocalist and MC added to his portfolio, Landu increasingly appears the leader of the band despite his comparative youth.

After more than an hour of exuberant playing, both Staff Benda Bilili and the Union Chapel crowd showed no signs of slowing down, but from a purely musical perspective it must be said there is very little variety to what Landu, Likabu and their cohorts do, which meant their performance did eventually start to become a little repetitive. Entertaining and uplifting they undoubtedly are, but as on record one senses that for all their spirit and undeniably feelgood groove, they are ultimately something of a one trick pony.

The challenges Staff Benda Bilili have overcome would be inspiring even in a developed country like the UK, never mind a poverty-stricken basket case like The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Strip away the human interest angle though and one has to question whether the band would have quite the same reputation were they judged on their music alone. It would be unfair to brand Staff Benda Bilili as a novelty act – they are great performers irrespective of their personal circumstances – but equally one wonders how enduring a career they will have with their clear limitations as songwriters.

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More on Staff Benda Bilili
Staff Benda Bilili @ Union Chapel, London
Staff Benda Bilili – Bouger Le Monde!
Staff Benda Bilili @ Union Chapel, London