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".Reuse content