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Interviews

Staff Benda Bilili

Creating a Dance All Their Own

Staff Benda Bilili It’s an oppressively muggy afternoon in Montreal, and the members of Staff Benda Bilili are gathered behind Club Soda for a pre-concert photo shoot. Across the road are two low-rent strip clubs; nearby, apparently, is a crack house; and security moves in as a belligerent, bleary-eyed street couple make a beeline for the band’s small catering table. Not the most salubrious of surroundings, but the musicians have seen worse — much, much worse.

When asked to describe his hometown of Kinshasa to someone who’s never been before, co-founder and singer Leon “Ricky” Likabu merely laughs. “The city is good,” he says, “because we have three or four hotels.”

The band’s wry Belgian manager, Michel Winter, chimes in with less irony: “It’s one of the most chaotic cities in the world.” Ricky grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, in the ‘60s, with polio, which withered his legs. His disability meant he wasn’t obliged to pay customs duties, so he could buy cheap cigarettes from across the river in Brazzaville and sell them to Kinshasan smokers. His real love was music, but apart from an abortive stint with Congolese star Papa Wemba, he found himself busking: “We spent nights in the street, like some people here, I see, in Canada.”

Able-bodied musicians were, by and large, unwilling to work with those with polio. According to Winter, “People didn’t trust them: ‘You will be too late,’ or ‘You cannot dance.’” So in 2003 Likabu and fellow polio-stricken street musician Coco Ngambali – a guitarist, singer, and arm-wrestler with a surprisingly high, keening voice – formed Staff Benda Bilili, whose name, in Lingali, means “look beyond appearances.”

They call their music “rumba blues.” Drummer Claude “Montana” Kinunu explains: “We mixed reggae, souk, Congolese rumba – we took a lot of styles and created our own. It’s very, very hot.” Montana was a young, able-bodied, and unprejudiced street musician when he met the band. “The songs were good; I added some details.

“We play artisanal instruments,” he says, with a smile and a hint of pride. He scavenged planks of wood for a box that he uses instead of a bass drum and snare – playing with sticks on top, and with a foot-pedal on the underside. He sourced materials from a forest to make tom-toms, and used metal from discarded umbrellas for the stands. Tin cans take the place of cymbals. “I mix everything together,” he says. “If I found a big cauldron, I’d make a gong out of it. I like creating my own sound – the new sound of the world.”

Live, Montana lays down supple, polyrhythmic grooves that hit as hard as techno beats. Former street kid Roger Landu, who was taken in by the band at age 12, plays a “satongé” – a one-stringed instrument made out of a tin can, a curved piece of wood from a basket, and a wire. When amplified, it sounds like a cross between a screeching violin and a wailing lead guitar. Bassist Paulin “Cavalier” Kiara-Maigi plays a brown-and-sky-blue acoustic instrument sculpted by Socklo, one of only two luthiers in Kinshasa. Cavalier was working at the city’s zoo when he met the band – they rehearsed there, and eventually recorded their first album, Très Très Fort, on its grounds.

“It felt natural to us,” shrugs Ricky. “We had a good engineer with good portable materials, and he told us, ‘We don’t need to go inside in a room; we can record it here.’ It went well, and this is why people like it.”

The engineer was Vincent Kénis, who, with Winter, runs the band’s label, Crammed. Kénis met Staff Benda Bilili through two French film-makers who’d discovered the band busking in 2004, in an area frequented by European businesspeople –Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye’s feature film, Benda Bilili!, premiered this year at Cannes and should hit North America this fall. Kénis also works with Congolese exports Konono #1, who have garnered a worldwide audience with their traditional wedding music. Staff Benda Bilili are more Western in their approach; they’ve been influenced, for instance, by James Brown, whom Ricky saw in 1974 on his “Rumble in the Jungle” date in Kinshasa.

On the back of their album, the band have toured at European festivals – “big crowds!” says Montana – “Everyone dances … they’re astonished.” In fact, Staff Benda Bilili’s primary audience is outside their home country. Congolese pop, says Winter, is generally sponsored by beer or telephone companies, “and it’s starting to become like advertisement music – it’s quite boring. Benda Bilili are not playing for Congolese people. If it will happen, we have to be careful, because there will be some brewery behind them; they will destroy them. When they are playing in Kinshasa, mostly it’s for embassies. They’ve become ambassadors of Congo.”

Their songs have serious lyrics – in “Polio,” for instance, Ricky laments his crutches. Rather than communicate angst, he’s trying to educate: “Now,” he says, “children are well vaccinated because the parents have understood the message we propagated in Kinshasa.”

Onstage at Club Soda for their Montreal Jazz Festival appearance, Ricky introduces “Mwana,” the album’s closing track, as a parent’s lament for a missing child. And yet, the song sounds like a celebration – as does just about every song. The band make a mockery of any claims they can’t dance. Ricky and fellow singer Theo do 360’s in their wheelchairs, and Djunana Tanga throws shapes in his (although he doesn’t, as he’s done in the past, do somersaults onstage); Kabose Kabamba bops around on his crutches; Roger shimmies on one leg while playing a wild solo, and Montana, in the back, blasts away at his kit with a street musician’s entertaining flair. In response, everyone in the seated venue rises to dance with accelerated heartbeats and beaming smiles.

Suffice to say, their first North American gig is a success. Already, the band’s lives have changed for the better: “Everyone has a house,” says Ricky. “The kids are in school. It’s normal. Before, I had a mechanical bike, and now I have a motorcycle.”

Living day-by-day in Kinshasa has given the band a practical bent – they prefer to invest their money in businesses rather than indulge in bling. “Little by little it’ll go,” affirms Montana. “We’ll get up there. We won’t succeed in an instant.”

— Originally published in The National Post, July 8, 2010

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