‘Benda Bilili!’

Magic music documentary from a Congolese social club


“Welcome to the desert of the real,” says Morpheus as Neo awakens in a postapocalyptic landscape in “The Matrix.” But he could just as well be describing the state of music nowadays. The “real” in music has indeed become like a desert, depopulated and featureless as far as the eye can see.

So many bands and artists these days are manufactured to meet demographic needs, such as The Jonas Brothers and SMAP, or embrace theatrical artifice, like Lady Gaga or Ayumi Hamasaki. It all exists in the plastic bubble known as “entertainment,” and little makes it through that retains the pungent bite of real, lived experience.

Despite the pleasures of glittery, pitch-corrected materialist pop, there will always be a hunger for the real in music. Thus it’s no surprise to witness the rise of Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili, who represent a triumph of music that’s intensely rooted in the specifics of time, place and experience. Coming from the streets of Kinshasa, four of its members are paraplegic from childhood polio, another two are street kids who were sleeping on cardboard. This is a band for whom “no future” was not a provocative slogan but a very possible outcome, yet who choose to keep believing in themselves and their music. It paid off, both for them — success — and for those of us who now have the pleasure of hearing them.

Benda Bilili!
Director Renaud Barret, Florent de La Tullaye
Run Time 87 minutes
Language English

It’s almost too warm and fuzzy to be true: A French filmmaker stumbles upon a scruffy group of musicians playing on a rough Kinshasa street corner, decides to make a film about them, starts recording them in a studio, and after a grueling five-year process — in the face of some major adversity — the band release their debut album and go on to a wildly successful tour of Europe. It’s a story arc we’ve seen before — whether in “Buena Vista Social Club” or “Anvil” — but the particulars are certainly far different.

The core of Staff Benda Bilili consists of three vocalist/guitarists who perform from their bikerlike tricycle- wheelchairs, a 12-year-old percussionist, a 13-year-old runaway who performs on an instrument made out of junk, and an unbelievable paraplegic break-dancer who twirls on his arms. The band formed as a result of other Congolese bands rejecting them because of their disabilities, under the assumption that disabled people can’t play music that makes people dance.

Wrong. The music Staff Benda Bilili play is rough-edged and raw, yet laced with delicate harmonies and lyrical content that both describes the misery of the street and proscribes rising above it.

Some of the characters we meet here are beyond admirable, both in their dedication and their toughness. Bandleader “Papa” Ricky, an accomplished singer/guitarist, gives his time and meager resources to help the street kids he befriends; when the shelter he stays at burns down, depriving him of all his possessions and putting him back on the street, he never once complains, nor does he lose his faith in his music. Then there’s Roger, a penniless street kid who manufactures his own instrument out of an old tin can, a fish-basket frame, and a single guitar string; he tunes it by chipping away at the wood with a knife. Yet with this crude setup he coaxes perfectly plucked melodies that have a Theremin-esque liquidity. And he’s a good kid to boot, hoping to make some money and return home to help out his mother and siblings.

One thing that the film does quite well is to show you a band getting better before your very eyes. After so many phony music-film scenes of bands becoming geniuses in an instant — think of The Doors creating “Light My Fire” on the spot in Oliver Stone’s film — it’s refreshing to watch a band improve slowly but surely, the way it really happens. When Roger first joins the band, his playing is hesitant, and not entirely in tune; when we see him again a year later, he’s tight and fully attuned to the rest of the band.

It would be easy to be cynical and say that a band full of handicapped and homeless musicians from the streets of an impoverished, war-torn postcolonial African city would be just the thing to sell to conscious, white, liberal Europeans, who make up most of the audience for world music these days. That would be somewhat true, but it would also be ignoring the fact that Staff Benda Bilili rock, and that their energy is infectious.

Staff Benda Bilili will tour Japan in late September and October, playing in Tokyo at Hibiya Park’s outdoor stage on Oct. 11. For information, visit www.bendabilili.jp or call (03) 3498-2881.