Staff Benda Bilili, Union Chapel, London
Tuesday 15 March 2011
Loosely translated from Lingala, Staff Benda Bilili means "put forward what is hidden" or "look beyond appearances". It is the chosen moniker of an "orchestra" made up of wheelchair-bound polio sufferers and street kids from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But such enticements are unnecessary, for the minute this lot strike up their rumba, reggae, Afro-Cuban fusion, the music speaks for itself.
The group is in London to celebrate the release of a film documenting their journey from homelessness on the streets of Kinshasa to international acclaim. "Papa" Ricky Likabu, the band's founder, led his confederates onstage immediately after a preview to be greeted with a standing ovation before any of them picked up an instrument.
Theirs is an incredible story. But it isn't a case of the story carrying an otherwise average band. It is the music, and their tireless dedication to it, which is responsible. Ricky, Coco Ngambali, Theo Nsituvuidi, Djunana Tanga-Suele and Kabamba Kabose Kasungo, are all severely disabled. Having busked together for years trying to make a crust, they play and sing in effortless accord, with huge grins.
The brightest of the all-star cast is 19-year-old former street kid Roger Landu, who plays an instrument fashioned from an old tin can, a bit of wood and some wire. Adopted by the Bililis in his early teens he's become seriously accomplished. Tracks like "Sala Keba" and "Je t'aime" reveal the beauty that a one-stringed guitar can produce.
The Bililis sing of sleeping on cardboard, gangs, and messy lives. But they speak of eternal optimism, too. A high point was when Tanga-Suele eased himself down from his wheelchair and danced like a break dancer on his hands.
Having been called back onstage by yet another ovation, the band left us with the uproariously wonderful self-titled track, "Staff Benda Bilili".
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