Album art from Bouger Le Monde!
From the dusty streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo to music’s international stage, Staff Benda Bilili brings a message – actually it brings quite a few – a band that’s as much an inspiration to others as it is inspired by them, as set on enlightenment as it is on translating communiqué.
The band began on the streets of Kinshasa, a collective of disabled musicians performing on and around the grounds of a local zoo. Soon thereafter, they made it to the top of the food chain, now playing in cities and countries the world over, spreading their sound, their ideas and their promises for life to all who will listen.
“I founded SBB because I was disabled and looking for a job,” band leader and founder Ricky Leon Likabu Makodu says in a press video sent to BTR. “My able-bodied friends didn’t want me. They told me, ‘You are a disabled person, you can’t dance.’ This often affected me. But I have disabled friends. We used to play religious music together. I went out looking for them in order to do what we wanted.”
That they did. Bringing “rumba-rooted grooves,” “extraordinary tin-can guitar solos,” and a whole lot of vocal reverberation, the band expands its sonic realms with their second album Bouge Le Monge!, released in September, which proves a testament to the growth, depth and ongoing memorandum the group wishes to evoke.
And, as they point out, it’s about “making the whole world shake.”
Explains soloist Roger Landu, “We’ve experienced many things; we’ve met many friends, many bands, many cultures. We said to ourselves this time, we must improve.”
Accordingly, Staff Benda Bilili added additional players and international components, attempting to represent nearly 1,000 different subgroups of peoples within its 11-track album. Their first LP, Tres Tres Fort, was told in four different languages; their latest, even more. The idea is to stir up the mind and senses; to understand what greater forces exist binding us together; and to uncover a source of inner power. Accordingly, their music incorporates world flair, and carries a variety of tones to disseminate cultural heterogeneity.
The way these musicians see it, it’s all about utilizing their resources.
“We want to make the world and the people shake in all ways because we are messengers,” Makodu comments. “We say that parents should take their children to the doctor to eradicate polio. Black people should wake up. We have minerals we have everything – why are white people exploiting us? All that means shake the world. We are shaking things up to wake everybody up.”
Because they, too, had to wake up. In order to meet success, Staff Benda Bilili had to look past what disadvantages they faced in life, and turn them to positive resources. In fact, disadvantages, for this group, are merely fruitful benefits.
Makodu adds, “I tell the parents of disabled children, ‘No you should not leave them home like that. They’re human, like everyone else; they should work.’”
Staff Benda Billi further wants to express the rich and enlivening environment from which they come forth. It was the DRC that made them who they are – their “iron lung” as they refer to it – and provided them with opportunities. Thus, they aim to reflect such influences throughout their records. They even consider themselves pseudo-journalists when it comes to documenting the tale of their people through “rumba-blues.”
“[The DRC] is our wealth. We are exploiting it because it’s our right to do so; it’s underexploited, we want to exploit it,” says drummer Montana Kinunu Ntunu. “We talk about reality, the message is present. We talk about almost everything – education, love. We talk about everything we’ve seen, everything that is going on in the world. We are still journalists. We are here to transmit messages.”
Despite the close-to-home feel of their motto, life has changed greatly for the Staff Benda Bilili since their days on the zoo grounds, where incidentally their first album was recorded. These days, all the guys have a house. They’ve got cars too. And they’ve traveled around the world.
Better yet, they’re creating ways for others to share in the wealth.
“We don’t wander the streets of Kinshasa any longer,” Ntunu points out. “Our NGO is coming along, it’s already active. Each one of us has his own means of transportation, and we all have bought a piece of land… All our children go to school; they are well educated. They live like all the other children of the world. They’re taken care of. It’s all good.”
Through music, positivity, activism and good energy, Staff Benda Bilili stands for something far greater than a band, but a tide in the current of global change.
“Staff Benda Bilili has many objectives, many things to accomplish and many inspirations,” notes Ntunu. “We will do whatever it takes, let’s move forward.”
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