There’s a lot that can be said about Staff Benda Bilili. For one thing, it is impressive that a group of disabled musicians have made their way from the streets of Kinshasa to the luxurious concert hall of the Barbican. But what is more remarkable is that their physical and social/economic disadvantages leave the least impression. It is the performance itself that grips you.
This is a truly exceptional group; whether just holding on to a strange 20 or 30 seconds of silence as they emerge on stage, smashing that silence with stomping rumba beats and chest-rumbling group vocals, or injecting the audience with their infectious joy.
The drum kit looks like nothing I’ve seen before. Unfaltering, driving rhythms penetrate the performance, both in the upbeat stamp-along songs, or the lamenting slower pieces. The drums are the perfect backbone for the polyrhythmic nature of Staff Benda Bilili. It is the use of this polyrhythmic talent that make the band such an interesting and exciting group.
The layering of voices is derived from traditional central and southern African music, but you are constantly aware that they are a modern band, using every influence that has come their way to its full effect.
They are innovators who, you feel, will truly change lives by making their music: their song ‘Lets All Go and Vote’ reputedly resulted in a 70% increase in polling figures in Congo. But regardless of the political significance of the band, it is the music which has the most effect.
Roger Landu , who’s instrument is listed as a satonge, provides the group with soul-melting solos. But these solos are above and beyond what anyone is used to. I’m not entirely sure what his instrument is made from. It is a sort of lute he has built himself with a tin can as a base and one string. He produces the most incredible sounds on this; part guitar solo, part pan-pipe melody. To have discovered a person with this degree of talent busking on the streets of Kinshasa is truly remarkable.
What seemed odd about the performance was not the array of wheelchairs and crutches, but that it was staged in the Barbican’s concert hall, with its mandatory seating. This is music to dance to, and whilst the group showed that you do not need to be able to stand up to dance, contingents of the audience gathered in the spaces at the corners of the stage or by the doors in order to find room to move their feet. The band should be playing at somewhere like the Notting Hill Carnival, somewhere in the sun, with people dancing and enjoying the shared pleasure of the music.
Staff Benda Bilili are continuing a UK tour. Remaining dates are :
Wednesday 18 November- Fiddlers Club, Bristol
Friday 20 November- )2 Academy, Oxford
(Photo: Le Monde)