Staff Benda Bilili are like nothing you have ever seen or heard before. A group of paraplegic street musicians who live 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 tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core or 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 a 17 year-old prodigy on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.
Please welcome the utterly soulful and mesmerising sound of Staff Benda Bilili !
It is said that Kinshasa hosts more than 40000 abandoned street kids, or sheges. The name supposedly hints at the Che-Guevaresque child soldiers who seized the capital in 1997, but the story might have been forged later as a reminder of Laurent Désiré Kabila’s connection with Che Guevara in the Sixties. Fleeing poverty in the suburbs and family violence, sheges can be seen everywhere in centre ville, waxing shoes, guarding vehicles in parking lots, selling pills, cola nuts and roasted crickets, slaloming on the boulevard between brand new SUVs, U.N armored vehicles, battered taxis, and customized tricycles driven by intrepid paraplegic pilots.
When handicapés (disabled people) were exempted from customs tax in the Seventies, many turned their vehicles into pickups and used them to make a living transporting goods across the river between Kinshasa and its sister capital Brazzaville. Handicapés form the second most important group among the street outcasts of centre ville. Regrouped since colonial times around a hostel near the general hospital, they have a reputation for being loud, fearless, well-educated, and well-organised in a powerful syndicate called Plateforme. Many sheges benefit from their protection and advice.