Staff Benda Bilili, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Staff Benda Bilili spin wheelchairs, dance on their legs' stumps and pluck instruments created from abandoned debris, they are embodying their nation's contradictions. They are homeless youths and paraplegic men from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, sub-Saharan Africa's most cursed country. But their UK debut proved that a history of colonial and local dictators, civil wars and corporate mineral-stripping can still fuel defiant art.

The eight-piece look like the intellectual street-band they are, all Stetsons, flat caps, black leather caps and trousers. There is movement all over the stage: four pirouetting wheelchairs, and crutches used by powerful arms to swing on. Another of the band vaults from his wheelchair and spins on atrophied legs with a dazzling grin.

By the second song, they have hit the high end of a typical Congolese groove: soukou, the adapted Cuban rumba which can change shape and tempo almost infinitely. The polyrhythms entwined through this music are driven by bustling drums and horn-like guitars. These are matched by the gruff harmonies and solo interjections of veteran bandleaders Coco Ngamban and Ricky Likabu. But it is Roger Landu's satonge which adds an anarchic kick to soukou's tradition. This wired tin-can guitar is his creation, artistry borne from the total necessity of Kinshasa's streets. The virtuoso shrieks he draws from it sound like a theremin whistling through a South Seas shell.

Like all the finest African bands, Staff Benda Bilili's swirling complexity removes the option to do anything but dance, drawing two dozen from their seats even in the stiff Barbican. But there are times when the sway and croon of ghostly Cuban rumbas animate the voice and guitars, too. Havana cantina, Kinshasa slum, psychedelic club or London arts centre – this crack outfit would tear the roof off anywhere. Translations of songs such as "Polio" and "Tonkara" reveal unsentimental pity and protest at how the world can turn on anyone. But live, that's implicit at most. Much more than this year's debut album, Tres Fort Fort, the hurtling, indomitable roar of their UK introduction battered down numerous doors, offering another entrance into Africa's heart.

Comments