Staff Benda Bilili

Tonight Gig Junkies goes global – or at least European! We are in Brussels, at a Les Nuits Botanique Festival event, to see Congolese Band Staff Benda Bilili. Brussels is a great place for gigs and the festival includes 11 days of music over 5 venues, with many top names.

Ibrahim Maalhouf

Support tonight is virtuoso Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, performing material from his new album ‘Diagnostic’. His work involves some complex and lengthy compositions, which he develops with his accomplished five-piece band. Many of the numbers involve solos for band members (guitar, piano, bass, drums and trumpet). There is even an interesting appearance by some form of bagpipes – unlikely, but they seem to fit in perfectly with the music. However, none of it seems indulgent and the music goes off to interesting places. One of the highlights of the evening is a song called ‘Beirut’, which reflects on the troubled city, in his former homeland. Although the music is entirely instrumental there is real feeling, without the need for words.

Ibrahim Maalhouf band

Maalouf probably most fits into the ‘jazz’ bracket, but he goes well beyond that category, extending into rock, fusion and transglobal influences. There are a lot of middle-eastern influences in the music and Maalouf uses a special four-valve trumpet to get his unique sound.

Interestingly, the support spot lasts for an hour and the audience demands and gets an encore. This would be unusual for a support at most gigs in the UK, but the Brussels audience is pretty excited and enthusiastic for more. Not surprising as Maalouf and his band put in a brilliant performance.

Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili are a group of street musicians from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These buskers, who lived around the city zoo, were ‘discovered’ by a Belgian record producer who arranged for them to record an album. They have now hit fame in the Buena Vista Social Club mode. A film was made about them and premiered in 2010. They have appeared at many festivals including Glastonbury and WOMAD and were even on Jools Holland’s ‘Later’ TV show a few months ago.

They are also active in politics and human rights in their country (their 2006 song ‘Let’s Go and Vote’ reputedly increased the turnout to vote at the Congolese election). Their songs document and comment on everyday life in Kinshasa, including sleeping on cardboard and gangs.

Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili play infectious rhythmic music which is rooted in rumba, but with other influences such as reggae, funk and R ‘n’ B. At the core of the band are four older musicians, including leader, Ricky Likabu, all of whom were disabled by polio in their youth and use wheelchairs.

Tonight there are eight musicians on stage. They are dressed in a variety of ways, from a smart suit (Ricky) to military camouflage gear (singer and guitarist Theo Nsituvuidi). When they come on stage, you are struck by their disabilities, but then the music takes over and speaks for itself. In fact ‘Benda Bilili’ means ‘look beyond appearance’, which says a lot about the band.

Staff Benda Bilili

The sound and atmosphere they create is incredible. The fast-paced songs are driven by the bass and percussion, with bass player Paulin ‘Cavalier’ Kiari-Maigi putting down a fantastic groove throughout. The band swing around the stage ‘dancing’ in their wheelchairs and with singer Kabamba Kabose Kasungo on his crutches. They really rip the joint apart. At one point singer Djunana Tanga-Suele gets himself out of his wheelchair and frantically dances on his hands.

Their vocals are astounding, with both individual voice parts and harmonies. To aspiring musicians they prove you don’t need to buy expensive equipment – for example, their ‘drum kit’ seems to consist of a home-made contraption comprising part of a tea chest, tin cans and saucepans. They perform their own songs, mostly written by dreadlocked guitarist Coco Ngambali.

Staff Benda Bilili

There are reputed to be over 40,000 abandoned street kids in Kinshasa and many have been helped and looked after by Staff Benda Bilili. In fact one of the stars of the band is teenage street kid Roger Landu. He is responsible for a key element of their sound. He created his own instrument, the satonge, which is a guitar string tensed between the drum of a tin can and a wooden bow inserted in its base. One hand plucks the string and the other bows. The unique sound it produces is somewhere between an electric guitar and a Theremin and is both ethereal and rhythmic.

Staff Benda Bilili

The audience tonight is one of the most genuinely enthusiastic I have seen, they really love the band and the band give a stunning show. Check out Staff Benda Bilili’s great album ‘Tres Tres Fort’ and website.

Staff Benda Bilili

Photographs and Review by John Bentley

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