Album: Staff Benda Bilili, Très Très Fort (Crammed Discs)

Andy Gill
Friday 20 March 2009 01:00
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Even by the diverse standards of the Congotronics scene, Staff Benda Bilili are like no African group you've come across.

Comprised chiefly of polio victims who prowl the Zoological Gardens of Kinshasa on their customised tricycles, they possess an extra layer of outsider status, while their musical idiosyncrasy is guaranteed by their able-bodied teenage prodigy Roger Landu, a virtuoso on the one-string satonge lute he invented and built.

Recorded outdoors at night, using power "borrowed" via a 100-metre extension cable, the songs on Très Très Fort come with a patina of distant traffic noise and, on "Polio", chirping crickets and toads. The band's sound features the rattle and twang of guitars and percussion in cyclical formation, fronted by combinations of vocalists whose voices blend with a distinctive quality reminiscent at times of Jamaican rock-steady vocal groups. But the dominant element is the high, piercing timbre of Landu's satonge, an instrument built from a paint can, a bent stick and a single wire, whose weird, modulating pitch is controlled by subtle tensioning of the string. Its peculiar, swooping tone, particularly during passages of high-speed picking, sounds like no other instrument, providing Staff Benda Bilili with their most unique quality.

Though rooted in the Congolese Afro-Cuban rumba tradition, the performances incorporate other imported rhythms, such as the gently strutting reggae twitch of "Sala Mosala" and the funk undercarriage of "Staff Benda Bilili". The slower pieces, notably the waltz "Sala Keba" and reflective rumba "Moto Moindo", are lent poignancy by the engaging blend of voices, calling in the latter for black men to be less passive victims of the modern world and go out and catch their food again.

This attitude comes through strongly in many tracks, the result of the self-reliance strictures written into the constitution of a country that failed to provide these men with the Salk vaccine in the first place. "I was born a strong man, but polio crippled me/ Look at me today, I'm screwed on to my tricycle," sings SBB leader Ricky Likabu in "Polio", going on to encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated and educated. "Tonkara" (cardboard) is a similarly affirmative song about sleeping rough but not letting misfortune define one's spirit. Whatever tribulations are visited upon them, Staff Benda Bilili bear them with grace and some wit: Coco Ngambali's "Marguerite" is a lament of separation from his siblings, some now living across the Congo river; not just in another country, he says, but served by a different phone network. How much more separated can one get?

Pick of the album:'Moziki', 'Staff Benda Bilili', 'Polio'

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