First Night: Staff Benda Bilili, Barbican, London
Homeless and paraplegic, but they still tear the roof off
Wednesday 11 November 2009
When the stars of the most anticipated African tour of the year spin wheelchairs, dance on their legs' stumps and pluck instruments created from abandoned debris, they are embodying their nation's contradictions.
Staff Benda Bilili are homeless youths (sheges) and paraplegic men from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, perhaps sub-Saharan Africa's most cursed country. But last night's UK debut was proof that a history of brutal dictators, civil wars – this century's alone leaving more than 5 million dead – and corporate mineral-stripping can still fuel defiant art.
They are given two hearty ovations before they begin; gratitude, maybe, for offering a side of Africa you don't see or hear every day. The eight-piece group looks 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 mighty arms to swing on. Another of the band vaults from his wheelchair and spins on half-legs, ululating with a dazzling grin. All have turned apparent weakness to strength long ago.
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, and matched by the gruff harmonies and solo interjections of veteran band leaders Coco Ngamban and Ricky Likabu.
Staff Benda Bilili add an anarchic kick to this open-ended tradition with white-suited Roger Landu's satonge. This bowed, one-string tin-can guitar is his creation, artistry borne from the total necessity of Kinshasa's streets. The virtuoso, wobbling shrieks he draws from it sound like a theremin whistling through a South Seas shell. When the rhythm section hit a striding beat close to Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower", Landu kneels and makes his invented marvel scream and soar.
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, sedate 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 that was implicit at most, watching them last night. 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.
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