Hard-knock life leads to magic music

Adversity inspired triumph in the Congo, say the directors of 'Benda Bilili!'

by James Hadfield

In 2004, Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye ditched their respectable jobs in France and headed to Kinshasa. In the ruined capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country just emerging from one of postcolonial Africa’s worst conflicts, they felt strangely at home. “We were like mad dogs in a mad city,” says Barret.

It didn’t take them long to make friends. Barret, a former advertising agency director, and La Tullaye, a photojournalist, set about documenting the musical culture of the city’s ghettos on film. “It’s just crazy urban music,” says Barret. “From hip-hop to funk, blues, rumba: You get many, many, many orchestras. They are rehearsing, and they’ve got no prospects because there’s no future, but they rehearse anyway, every day.”

In the course of their filming, which formed the basis of the 2007 television documentary “La Danse de Jupiter” (“Jupiter’s Dance”), the duo met a group of paraplegic musicians living in the grounds of Kinshasa’s zoo. Staff Benda Bilili’s members had been crippled by polio, and they made their way around the city in jerry-rigged tricycles, accompanied by throngs of street children.

Their music was a blend of rumba, blues, funk and reggae, with limber rhythms and exuberant, roughshod vocal harmonies. Lyrics addressed the hardships of living rough with knowing humor. “I once slept on cardboard,” runs the opening line of “Tonkara.” “Good luck hit me, I bought myself a mattress.”

“They are writing about their life on the street and the situation of Congolese people,” writes the group’s manager, Michel Winter, by e-mail from Kinshasa. “Mostly (it is) about the people living in the street: the street kids, handicapped people, prostitutes. Then, as is the tradition in most African countries, they give some advice to people on how to get out of the problems of poverty, disease and criminality.”

“I was born as a strong man but polio crippled me,” sings Staff Benda Bilili’s leader, Ricky Likabu, in “Polio.” As it progresses, the song takes on a more instructive tone: “Parents, please go to the vaccination center / Get your babies vaccinated against polio / Please save them from that curse.”

Without a state health system to rely on, the city’s disabled people have had to take a proactive approach in safeguarding their livelihoods, joining to form a syndicate of sorts. “Benda bilili” translates as “look beyond appearances,” but in Kinshasa it has other connotations.

“Benda Bilili are kings of the streets,” says Barret. “Everybody fears them and respects them. . . . They go to some shops and they ask for a special tax which doesn’t exist, but they created the tax themselves. And if you don’t pay, they break everything, they break your windows. So everybody pays them. They’re kind of . . . yeah, they’re gangsters. But they have no other option.”

Likabu still had a reputation as a local tough when the filmmakers met him, but by that point he was making his money through legitimate means: selling tobacco and alcohol from his tricycle, as well as tailoring and the odd mechanic job. He and the other members had done their time in different orchestras around the city, but, Kinshasa roads being what they are, they were constantly arriving late for rehearsals. By banding together, at least they’d all be in the same predicament.

Barret and La Tullaye returned in 2005 with money to help the group record an album, acting as producers while also filming the band’s progress. They acquitted themselves better in the latter capacity: Their feature-length documentary “Benda Bilili!” premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is currently screening at theaters in Japan.

Shortly before recording was due to commence, they introduced Staff Benda Bilili to a street kid they had encountered, who would come to define the group’s sound. Roger Landu was just 13 at the time but was already a virtuoso in his instrument of choice, a homemade, one-stringed guitar called a satonge. Fashioned from a wooden bow and a tin can, it produces a strident, wavering tone that alternately recalls a drunken mandolin and a theremin.

“He was living the life of a regular street kid,” says Barret. “He was sleeping on cardboard and sleeping on the sidewalks, and he could have been brutalized or killed, even. But with the Benda Bilili, he had family and protection. He was able to prove his (ability with his) instrument being with them, and being taught how to write notes, to play properly in a band. . . . Now he’s just like the Hendrix of the one-string guitar.”

Despite this promising new arrival, though, the studio sessions didn’t go well. Three days in, a fire gutted the shelter where some of the band’s members had been living, putting the recording on hold.

Undeterred, Barret and La Tullaye ventured back the following year, this time with an experienced producer in tow. Vincent Kenis had been traveling to the Congo for decades and helped introduce many of its musicians to a wider audience, most notably through the “Congotronics” series on Belgian label Crammed Discs.

Kenis has responded to the unique demands of working in Kinshasa by developing a mobile studio setup that allows him to record in almost any location. “Every time I tried to record Congolese groups in a real studio, I ended up with a poor performance,” he writes by e-mail from Kinshasa. In Staff Benda Bilili’s case, he chose to capture them in the environment they knew best: the zoo.

“I insist on having the musicians participate as much as possible,” Kenis says of his working method. “Since I now work on a laptop computer only, I would theoretically be able to mix a whole album in my hotel room in collaboration with them. It turns out that most of them get bored quite quickly and think I’m crazy to take so much time in mixing, editing, correcting, compressing their work. Maybe they’re right.”

Even with a veteran producer on board, however, the sessions dragged on. “When it comes to recording (the band), it’s a real problem, because they don’t eat, they don’t sleep,” says Barret. “So one day it’s OK, and the next day it’s just a catastrophe and everybody sleeps. They’ve got problems in the city, they’ve got stuff to solve, and they’re here but they’re not here. That’s why the recording took so long.”

Four years after they first entered the studio, Staff Benda Bilili’s debut album, “Tres Tres Fort,” was finally released in 2009 by Crammed Discs. The record was an immediate success, and the group spent the summer touring Europe, starting with a triumphant performance at France’s Les Eurockeennes de Belfort festival.

Winter describes that show, which also features in “Benda Bilili!,” as the group’s most memorable to date, recalling a “huge festival, 6,000 people dancing, and for the first time a powerful PA that gave a completely new sound to the band.” Staff Benda Bilili were back in Europe this summer, on a tour itinerary that included dates at England’s Glastonbury Festival and Denmark’s Roskilde. After a few weeks back in Kinshasa, they arrived in Japan last weekend to commence a monthlong nationwide tour.

Barret and La Tullaye, meanwhile, were free to get back to their film, hurriedly editing down 500 hours of footage in time for its first screening at Cannes in May. “There was a standing ovation for, like, 20 minutes,” says Barret. “It’s the Benda Bilili miracle, going on and on and on.”

However, the real test would come when they screened the documentary in Kinshasa. “We showed the movie in some popular areas,” he says. “We were doing street screenings, and people from the street, they saw the movie and they went crazy. It was a very exciting moment . . .

“We didn’t betray the Benda Bilili world, which is a good thing, which was very important to us.” He pauses and shrugs. “I’m a bit lost for words.”

“Benda Bilili!” is now showing. Staff Benda Bilili tour Japan from Sept. 25; for details, see