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Published on Mar 22, 2007
Staff Benda Bilili are like nothing you have ever seen or heard before. A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in and around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo, they make music of astonishing power and beauty. The band's mesmerising rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals, remind you at times of Cuban nonchalance, at other times of the Godfather of Soul himself. You can hear echoes of old-school rhythm and blues, then reggae, then no-holds barred funk. Four senior singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are weird, infectious guitar-like solos performed by young Roger Landu, (an ex-street kid the band took under their wing), who plays a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.
The lyrics of the Staff Benda Bilili are wise, ironical advice to the people who live in the streets. In Lingala, "Benda Billi" means "look beyond appearances".
Entitled "Très Très Fort" ('Very Very Strong'... or 'Very Very Loud'), their first album was produced by Vincent Kenis (already responsible for introducing and producing Konono N°1, Kasaï Allstars and the Congotronics series). The songs were recorded out in the open, mainly in the zoological garden near centre ville. The album will be released in Feb/March 2009.
The physical version of the album contains video bonuses directed by Belle Kinoise aka Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, who discovered the band while they were filming their "Jupiter's Dance" documentary in Kinshasa. Florent and Renaud have been documenting the story of the band since 2004, and are working on a feature-length film devoted to the life of Staff Benda Bilili, from the sidewalks of Kinshasa to their (upcoming) first concerts in Europe.