Sometimes the story behind a band is so powerful that it threatens to overshadow the band itself. That was the case with eight-member Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili, but their new album, Bouger Le Monde, should go a long ways to overcoming their overwhelming back story. The story runs like this: Staff Benda Bilili originated as a group of four middle-aged, parapalegic street musicians, who lived on the grounds of an abandoned zoo in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democractic Republic of the Congo. Brought together by music, these artists were mostly homeless, living off intermittent work running goods across the border in their custom-made motorized (or hand-cranked) wheelchair vehicles. Interestingly, street parapalegics, handicapped from childhood due to polio outbreaks, hold a powerful position in the city, are organized into a powerful union, and are seen not only as outspoken advocates, but also mentors to the ranks of homeless children, known as shege. One of these children, Roger Landu, is easily the star of the band. A young shege brought under the wing of bandleaders Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali, Landu plays an instrument entirely of his own making, a folk instrument he calls a satonge, made from a tin can, a curved piece of wood and one guitar string. He picks the single string and stretches the metal wire to change pitch. It sounds unassuming, but this kid burns like Hendrix on his instrument. He plays impossibly fast, creating endlessly creative guitar solos from just one string. The songs of Staff Benda Bilili dealt frankly with their disabilities, and their name itself means “look beyond appearances” in the Lingala language. As they tour, they’ve been spreading the powerful message that physical handicaps can’t keep a person down.
So that’s the story. With Belgian label Crammed Discs releasing their first album, Très Très Fort, in 2009, and a hit documentary made about their music that electrified Cannes, Staff Benda Bilili rocketed to the top of the world music charts and captured the imagination of the world press. But the really interesting story is the one being told today. Evidently most of the members of Staff Benda Bilili have been able to retire from the streets with the proceeds from their touring and album sales. They can afford much better-built vehicles to get around, and are seen as stars back home in Kinshasa. Now they’re touring the States and, from all reports, easily fulfilling the promise of their new album’s title–bouger le monde translates to “shake the world.” They’re playing Town Hall Seattle on October 27, so you can hear them live right in our own town. By all accounts, this will not be a concert to miss!
With Bouger le Monde, Staff Benda Bilili have done the most difficult thing for any “world” artist today: they’ve transcended their own story. It doesn’t matter anymore where they came from and what their roots are, with Bouger le Monde, it’s clear they’re just making great music. They come out the gate hard on this album, and play every song as if they have something to prove. The Latin-influenced rhythms of Congolese rumba is inescapably catchy, so it’s hard not to fall in love with their sound. Twin soukous guitars weave around the distorted warbles and screams of Landu’s homemade instrument, and the voices sing out strong and true. The songs cover a variety of topics, from broken hearts to hard-knock living, even a song calling out the street gangs of Kinshasa. This is obviously a band that has lived hard all their lives, but with the stunning success of the past four years, there’s also come more swagger and confidence. I thought I’d miss the pained urgency of their last album, the feeling that this was their moment to rise up and that they sure as hell were gonna make it happen, but the truth is that the urgency is still there. Not content to rest on their laurels or their monies, Staff Benda Bilili play as hard as they ever have and seem truly zealous in their mission to shake the world.
Get out to their Seattle gig at Town Hall Seattle this Saturday, October 27, and you can shake your way through their set.