Staff Benda Bilili transmit the sound of Kinshasa

Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili perform in Montreal this week, bringing with them a brilliant sound produced by homemade instruments, and played by street musicians beset by poliomyelitis.

(By Doudou Kalala and Erin MacLeod)

The name Staff Benda Bilili, a combination of French and Lingala, means “the people who help to make hidden things visible,” and that’s indeed what this group of physically challenged Congolese street musicians do. They aim to make visible the experience of living on the streets of Kinshasa, capital of Congo: a cradle of musical innovation and capital of African music, where talented players dreaming of international success are stationed on every street corner.

Staff Benda Bilili first found local fame, but then, a first album recorded by Belgian producer Vincent Kunis (who also produced fellow Congolese band Konono No. 1) garnered international attention, and then there was a documentary on the band that screened at Cannes. With more acclaim came more opportunities, and Staff Benda Bilili have gone on to wow audiences from Japan to Australia to Europe and North America.

The success of the band has meant major changes for the members. “Only a couple of years ago, we were living a rough life in the streets of Kinshasa,” explains drummer Montana Kinunu Ntunu. “Today, with this music, we can afford a house, we can educate our kids and live like normal human beings. It feels good.”

Staff Benda Bilili aim to bring their experience to the world — to challenge expectations, from their instruments through to the possibilities for physically challenged individuals — in their cases, those disabled by poliomyelitis. Their music is as unique as their homemade instruments, a hybrid, upbeat, soulful “rhumba-blues.” And the stage show comes complete with a hype man—the same as it was in the streets of Kinshasa.

And their worldwide exposure has meant exposure for disability issues in Congo and Africa as a whole, as well as fundraising to give back to the community. “Being disabled in Kinshasa is not easy; usually disabled people are treated as vagabonds, not capable or as less than a human. Staff Benda Bilili has challenged that mentality — with our success, we have demonstrated to the Congolese people and to the world that disability is not inability… We are going to continue inspiring the young generation with our music. We have started a foundation that will be helping street kids, disabled and other vulnerable members of the community to get skills in areas like carpentry, music and art.”

“We are an incredible success story, one of the few internationally known music bands completely comprised of disabled musicians, that are able to make the world move,” says Montana. With two albums, a second documentary on the way and a commitment to keep on revealing, as Montana puts it, “what’s really going on” to a growing audience of eager listeners, it looks like they just might succeed in bouger le monde. ■

Staff Benda Bilili headline at the Rialto Theatre (5723 Parc) tonight, Monday, Oct. 15, with Montreal’s Wesli, 8 p.m., $25/$30

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