STAFF BENDA BILILI #2 – Reasons to be cheeful

Djunana’s smile is pure Ray Charles, blissful and bright.  He’s busy cutting a rumba rug on the dirty concrete stage of L’Oeil Du Plaisir, a roughneck dance bar in the heart of the Congolese capital Kinshasa.  Since he has no legs, or rather, only short floppy polio-ravaged stumps, it seems as if he’s buried waist downwards, with only the upper half of his extraordinary frame visible whilst the rest boogies in the maw of the earth.  Every part of his body is beaming, every sinew dances.   I stare at him impolitely whilst jangling my legs and arms gracelessly, to the same beat.  Inside, a confused, even mildly alarmed voice pesters me.  “What the hell has he got to feel so happy about?!!” it demands to know.

I imagine that most of the party of musicians and adventurers who have arrived with me in this beer-crate and sawdust joint on a voyage of musical discovery organised by Africa Express, are asking themselves the same question.  After all, finding the appropriate rank in the global hierarchy of suffering for a disabled musician who lives rough on the streets of Africa’s most deranged and dysfunctional megalopolis seems like a no-brainer.  Or is it?

Amadou Bagayoko, one half of the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam gets up on stage to inject some sharp and slithering guitar licks into the rippling song.  Damon Albarn adds his melodica to the mix.  Sam Duckworth’s grin is broader than Broadway.   Scratch and the rappers from De la Soul look entranced.  This is no time to get all morose and philosophical but if the beer weren’t so sharp and cold, the music so warm and honeyed and the whores so statuesque and impossibly graceful, the temptation to slip into a bout of soul-searching would be overwhelming.

Sharing the stage with Djunana are four other disabled musicians, an able-bodied bassist and a young b-boy dressed in hip-hop baggies who is playing his satongé like a panhandling Paganini.  I later learn that this lean gentle looking kid, who goes by the name of Roger Landu, actually invented the instrument he’s playing with such dazzling virtuosity.  The raw materials of the satongé consist of a milk powder tin, a section of fish basket frame and a single electrical wire.   Arpeggios, cadenzas, glissandos and obbligatos all flow effortlessly from Roger’s nimble plectrum-clutching fingers.   A few days later, at our hotel, Roger makes up santongés to order and sells them to us for $20 a pop…good business for a shégué or homeless kid who until recently was surviving by busking for pennies in Kinshasa’s central markets.

Roger’s resourcefulness actually makes him a model citizen, a fine practitioner of the infamous Article 15 of the Congolese constitution, which exhorts all true patriots to find a way to cope and survive by fair means or foul.  The French have a fine verb for it…”se debrouiller”   In the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, a country that has been raped and abused by men in power, both foreign and native, for more than a century, you either embrace Article 15 or you die.  It’s that simple.  Most residents of Kinshasa wake up in the morning with one goal and one goal only in their heads: to find something to eat and make it through the day.  And only the gilded few have much more armoury than their wit, courage and cunning with which to achieve this task.  Tomorrow doesn’t even trouble their minds.  Yesterday is a murky mire of civil wars, riots, oppression, mismanagement, embezzlement and corruption.  Self-pity is suicidal.   Today and the next meal are all that count.

The band who are weaving spells about our ears with their dulcet rolling rumba and keening harmony vocals are the unrecognised geniuses of Article 15, the dons of the daily grind, the masters of survival.  They call themselves Staff Benda Bilili, which, in Lingala, the lingua franca of this vast and variegated country, means something like “the people who see beyond…”   Beyond what?   Beyond prejudice, corruption, the lies of priests and politicians, the grimy veneer of daily life in a city where nothing works and no one really cares.

Lounging after the show on his extraordinary moped wheelchair contraption, Coco Ngambali, the group’s primary songwriter and poet, explains; “We see ourselves as journalists.  We’re the real journalists because we’re not afraid of anyone.  We communicate messages to mothers, to those who sleep on the streets on cardboard boxes, to the shégués.”   Coco’s face is like a granite boulder bathed in soft evening light, an astonishing mixture of gentle wisdom and rawhide toughness.   As well as being a gifted composer and singer, he’s reportedly a champion arm-wrestler.

The story starts with a microscopic organism that wheedles its away into the gastrointestinal tract and then the central nervous system.  Before the mutilations of recent wars in eastern Congo added to the demographic, the poliomyelitis virus accounted for almost all serious disabilities in Kinshasa.   The victims of this scourge were often abandoned by their parents, first to various struggling religious institutions and then to the streets.   The handicapped are also deemed to have demonic powers, and therefore find themselves ostracised by a suspicious and fearful able-bodied society.  Having been dealt this atrocious hand, the hapless legion of Kinshasa’s polio victims have developed extraordinary survival strategies, which, by a convoluted twist of fate, have often actually afforded them a better standard of life than their able-bodied counterparts at the bottom of the heap.

One of these strategies is to form gangs, which roam the streets in bizarre gizmoidal wheelchairs, extorting protection money from shopkeepers.   Another is to take advantage of one of ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s more benign statutes exempting disabled persons from paying any taxes on the ferries which steam across the vast Congo river, linking Kinshasa with Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, on the opposite shore.  Wheelchairs piled high with cigarettes, alcohol, petrol, rice and all types of stock both straight and crooked are heaved by armies of young street kids up the ferry ramps and onto the waiting boats.  Various ‘associations’ of disabled traders dominate the commerce of Ngobila Beach, the ferry port on the Kinshasa side.   Thirty years ago, it was here that Coco met Ricky Likabu, or ‘Papa Ricky’ as he’s known to the shégués of Kinshasa’s downtown.

Ricky is the backbone and epaulettes of Staff Benda Bilili, the group’s strategist, disciplinarian and motivator.   Like most disabled people in Kinshasa his work life is multifaceted:  tailor, mechanic, hairdresser, street trader, musician.   But for Kinshasa’s street community, he is ‘Papa Ricky’, a tough yet benign father figure and judge of petty sidewalk disputes.    On most days he can be found hanging out with the rest of the group at the Sonas roundabout downtown, opposite the UN building, busking, holding court, surveying the toxic frenzy of Kinshasa’s street life with his steely twinkling eyes.

Coco and Ricky used to be members of Raka Raka, one of the great Papa Wemba’s many backing combos.   But when Wemba was incarcerated in France for visa and immigration fraud, the pair decided to set up on their own.  At the time, they were living in a refuge for the disabled in the suburb of Bandal.   In 2004 a pair of French filmmakers, Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, happened on the group as they were busking outside one of Kinshasa’s rare gourmet restaurants for ex-pats and aid workers.  It was the genesis of an intense creative relationship.  Barret and De la Tullaye started filming the group, and recording them at the studios of the Congolese Radio and TV.  In 2006, they delegated the recording part of the project to the Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, the man behind many of the wonders, which have emerged from this musically charged city, including Konono No. 1, Kasai All Stars and the Congotronics compilations.   The first Staff Benda Bilili CD, entitled ‘Très Très Fort’, is out on Crammed Discs in March.

It’s clear from a quick peek at the rushes of Barrett and De la Tullaye’s film about the group, that Coco, Ricky and their entire extended family place great store on the world release of their CD to provide the finance needed to realise their dreams.   Ricky talks of opening a centre for the disabled and homeless people of Kinshasa, where trades and crafts, including music, can be taught thereby boosting the ability to survive with dignity and mental independence.   He also dreams of touring Africa with Staff Benda Bilili, spreading the message of communal resilience and self-help.

Whether the crisis-riddled music industry in the west is capable of fulfilling these hopes remains to be seen.  But just in case anyone is tempted to evoke Samuel Johnson’s proverbial two-legged walking dog, Staff Benda Bilili’s music has no need of sentimental crutches.  It stands proudly on its own formidable limbs, mixing 70s funk, old Cuban son and mambo with the mellifluous flow of classic Congolese rumba, evoking the golden age of Franco and Tabu Ley le Rochereau.  The musicianship is subtle and precise, forged by the group’s extraordinary work ethic and their sound has a raw simplicity and uniqueness, thanks partly to Soklo, Kinshasa’s most famous guitar maker, who provides locally made instruments to most of the city’s street musicians.  Roger’s wonderful satongé solos provide the sweetest of icings on this well apportioned cake.

Florent de la Tullaye is a kind of latter day DV Cam Hemmingway who has dedicated the past five years of his life to Kinshasa and its music scene. Filming in the city has required huge amounts of courage and sang-froid, but like most people who have spent time with Staff Benda Bilili in their perilously fragile and dangerous habitat, he is in awe of their mental strength and toughness.

“They’re obstinate, courageous, they’re survivors,” Florent tells me over the phone.  “And they’re very generous.   They’ve taught the street children an enormous amount.  Everybody is in the same misery in Kinshasa but you get the impression that the handicapped cope better than the able-bodied.  They often say, “A handicap is in the mind, not in the legs.””

The fascinating tale of Staff Benda Bilili is about to enter a new ‘international’ phase.   A summer tour of Europe and the UK to coincide with the release of ‘Très Très Fort’ is in its planning stages.  400,000 people have already viewed the brief snippets of film about the band on You Tube.  It seems that an altogether more congenial and auspicious viral chain reaction than the one that robbed them of their limbs all those years ago has already been unleashed.

Whatever the next chapters of the Staff Benda Bilili story bring, dreams fulfilled, dashed, or half-realised, it seems unlikely that Ricky or Coco will loose their battle-hardened grit and determination.  In 2005 their refuge in Bandal burned down, along with most of their worldly possessions.  There was no time for tears.   Staff just regrouped and decamped to the city’s municipal zoo, where they now find the peace and tranquillity to rehearse, hang out and hold band meetings.

On the last day of our all too brief and flighty Africa Express visit to Kinshasa, some of us go down to the zoo to see the group.  Having been smitten by the group at the bar a few nights before, 3D from Massive Attack forgoes a trip to the crafts market to join us.  As we walk past rusting cages inhabited by lice-ridden monkeys with mournful faces, we can hear the sweet sounds of a rehearsal that is already taking it orderly course.   Ricky and Coco greet us with friendly smiles veiling a dreadnought spirit that seems to say, “Go on, pity us if you dare.”   We express our sincere hope that we will be seeing the group in England sometime soon; a hope with apparently is on the verge of becoming a reality.   Then we take our leave of Staff Benda Bilili and their world, where the battle against misery produces traits and values capable of making a pampered sheltered white-man living in his safe European home actually feel jealous.

That’s where all those endlessly predictable images of poverty and disease that dominate the western media’s coverage of Africa are so aberrant.  Africa doesn’t need our pity.   Africa demands and deserves our admiration and wonder, our humility and respect.   Staff Benda Bilili embody this truth with total dedication and style.

Andy Morgan.  (c) 2009

First published in The Independent – Feb 2009

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