Believe the hype, folks: Très Très Fort, the new album by Staff Benda Bilili, is truly fantastic. I’ll be genuinely surprised if I hear much else this year that displays half the musical ingenuity, wit and energy that these guys can muster when they’re in full flight. And if I do, then the artists responsible for it will have almost certainly come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo too.
In the west, contemporary pop-culture seems to be stuck in a perpetual spin-cycle, flip-flopping between fads and corporate-driven revivals. It’s like a dog constantly chasing its own tail – not for a flea, but for the fiver that someone stuck there as a joke. Lazyitis is the new Rock n Roll.
But Staff Benda Bilili – like fellow Congolese musicians Kasai Allstars and L’orchestre Folklorique T.P. Konono N°1 de Mingiedi (that’s Konono N°1 to you) – have opened up a Pandora’s box of musical possibilities. Their imagination and determination puts most UK bands to shame. What they lack in resources they make up for with sheer inventiveness, literally conjuring their songs from out of nothing, using home-made instruments, discarded junk and their own bodies and voices.
But nothing evolves in a vacuum and Staff’s music is no exception: it has its own set of internal reference-points, one that combines modern-day Kinshasa street-mythology with a Congolese musical continuum that stretches back to the late 1940s when local musicians first began reappropriating Afro-Cuban Rumba rhythms. Their soulful fusion of soukous and raw west african street-funk gives me the same visceral thrill as when I first heard Keith Hudson or Sun Ra.
Très Très Fort is part of some beautifully tangled strand of parallel evolution that bypasses the Delta Blues completely. The dusty back-roads it explores are very different to the ones travelled by Son House or Charlie Patton. It cops its moves from other points in time and space entirely – a wonderfully counter-intuitive collision of past and future-musics that consigns six decades of rock n roll orthodoxy to the dustbin. It’s like someone just pressed the button marked ‘Reset’.
Some of you may already be familiar with Staff’s larger-than-life back-story – that the band’s core members are paraplegic street-musicians, polio victims who drive custom-built motorised trikes that resemble something from a Mad Max movie. The band’s elder-statesmen Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali are both in their fifties now and have spent years living off their wits, using their hand-welded hybrid vehicles to transport and sell black-market cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline. Along the way they took a number of shegues (‘street kids’) under their wing, including electric-satonge player Roger Landu who is – well, probably the most exciting and remarkable ‘guitarist’ around right now.
Roger has constructed a one-stringed lute-like instrument from a wooden bow and an old metal can, whose pitch is subtly altered by bending the bow, I guess. He plays his homemade satonge like a virtuoso, creating complex runs of microtonal pitch-changes that dart in and out of the music like a lizard’s tongue. It sounds like a hauntingly weird cross between a distorted electric-guitar and a theremin.
Très Très Fort contains a wealth of musical gems. Album-opener ‘Moto Moindo’ has a deceptively laid-back intro – a lilting back-porch rumba that lures the listener in, then suddenly accelerates off, gleefully zigzagging through the back-streets of Kinshasa, driven by frantic hand-drums and a chanted refrain. ‘Je t’aime’ is taut, uncut funk – sinuous and wiry with precision-built guitar-chops and percussion that sounds like an office full of chattering typewriters.
‘Sala Keba’ is a song that went out and got completely sozzled with some Cubans, only to stumble home at 3am looking for rum and romance. And if there’s a more infectious tune than ‘Sala Mosala’ – with its lopsided Reggae bounce, vocal shout-backs and mosquito-like guitar interjections – then I want to hear it! The song seems to pick up speed like an old-fashioned steam-engine, its carriages filling up with increasingly rowdy passengers at every stop. ‘Polio’, however, is every bit as heart-breakingly touching as its title suggests – the vocals underpinned by a hesitant-sounding guitar-line that sounds as if it can’t find its own way home. But later, the mood of weary resignation suddenly lifts and the song ends with a shout of defiant optimism.
Kudos must also go to sound-engineer Vincent Kenis for his sympathetic and subtly understated production. The album crackles with atmosphere and avoids the air-conditioned sterility of some bigger budget ‘World’ releases. Staff were recorded live, out in the open, using an array of microphones and a power-supply that was secretly purloined from a nearby concession-stall. And, no doubt, the makeshift 100m mains-cable was plumbed-in by vocalist/guitarist Theo Nsituvuidi, the groups’ ninja-like in-house electrician and a past-master at liberating public electrical utilities.
Vincent also kindly acted as a translator for FACT.
I was interested that the band saw themselves as journalists – reporters who tell stories about life on the street…
“Staff Benda Bilili live in the street, they see everything and are aware of everything that’s going on. They know much more than journalists. They also know how to survive in a difficult environment. Their songs are inspired by stories they heard and also give advice on how to survive. For example, in the song ‘Moziki’, they say you shouldn’t trust these women who organize likelembas (mutual insurance societies) and that it’s wise to put your money in a big bank. Something that they’ve only ever dreamt of doing.”
I had no idea that Polio was still such a big problem – I only discovered this because of one of your songs. Is there now a vaccination program in the Congo?
“Polio was a big problem in Africa in the Fifties. Most Staff Benda Bilili members are more than 50 years old. Today, after huge vaccination campaigns over the years, less children are affected, but the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) remain vigilant. The polio virus is very volatile – as soon as it arrives in some place they have to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people. It reappeared in the north of Nigeria where the charia is applied and the authorities refused vaccination campaigns [Fundamentalists had started rumours that the vaccine had been poisoned by westerners]. It skipped borders and new vaccination campaigns had to be launched. The Gates Foundation supports such programs.
“Staff Bilili would like very much to launch an African tour to help encourage mothers to get their children vaccinated. That’s what the song ‘Polio’ is about: “If a child catches polio you shouldn’t nevertheless neglect him, maybe he’s the one who will help you later”. Which is the case with the musicians from Staff Benda Bilili, who all succeed in supporting their own families, thanks to their talent and ingenuity.”
I believe that Ricky and Coco used to play with the legendary Soukous musician Papa Wemba. I wondered if they could tell us a bit about their time playing with him?
“They did play with Papa Wemba. In fact, they put together a group of paraplegics and Papa Wemba – who appreciated them very much – financed their rehearsals for a while. The group existed until Papa Wemba was arrested [in 2003, for smuggling immigrants into Europe]. The group was called “Raka Raka”. Then some of them decided to create another group which became Staff Benda Bilili.”
My own knowledge of Congolese music is still fairly basic, but I detected some Rumba influences in Staff’s music. Could you tell us a bit about the Congolese musicians who influenced you when you were younger? Do you have any all-time favourite records?
Ricky: “The great Rumba period is part of our youth. We don’t all agree about who’s our favorite, but most of us used to listen and still listen to grand maître Franco Luambo Makiadi [aka ‘Franco’, the founder of OK Jazz]. There’s also Tabu Ley [leader of Orchestre Afrisa International] and Wendo Kolosoy [aka Papa Wendo, one of the founding fathers of modern Congolese music] – you should listen to them all! About records…well, it’s difficult for us to talk about them, since we mainly listen to music on the radio.
[Translator’s note: The Congolese record market was always dominated by singles, not albums. Around 1985 they were replaced, not by CDs – still virtually unknown to this day – but by cassettes whose sequence was often determined by the bootlegger, not the artist – which explains why the Congolese would rather give you a list of favorite songs rather than of favorite records]
There are some fabulously funky moments of your album. I was wondering where the funk influences had come from – was that from hearing James Brown in the 1970s?
Coco: “When we first saw James Brown dancing we were extremely impressed. He performed in Kinshasa on the occasion of the great Ali-Foreman boxing match. Any music can inspire us. In the Mobutu period, international music was banned from the radio. We listened to foreign radio stations and often heard musicians we liked, but couldn’t pick out their names.”
Roger’s one-string electric-lute sounds incredible. Is it based on a satonge? I wondered how he’d got the idea for making it.
Ricky: “Roger used to hang out on the street with his instrument. He managed to get some money in the market-place by playing current Congolese hits. We gave him accommodation, we trained him. Now he doesn’t need to hang out in the street any more; he’s got a real job. His instrument was inspired by a traditional instrument which he adapted to his size. He was seven and never has been without his satonge ever since. He will become a great guitarist as well. He’s got a good ear and works a lot. He electrified his satonge the same way other Congolese musicians electrified their traditional instrument. When he has a chance, he connects it to an amplifier.”
[Producer’s/engineer’s note: At the time of the album the mic was a DPA 4061, the sound treatment was provided by a Zoom 707 pedal, the amplification by a Roland Micro-Cube. New combinations are in the works!]
Ricky and Coco – you were once part of the groups of disabled black-market traders that hung around Ngobilia Beach – I guess they were ‘gangs’ for lack of a better word – did any of these trader-gangs have names? Were any of the other traders musicians? Could you tell us a little bit about those days….?
Coco: “I’m the one who did the business with Brazzaville, I did it for a long time. In this country there is no welfare; it’s every man for themselves. The disabled people are many and jobless. In a gesture of help, [President] Mobutu decided that disabled people were exempted from customs taxes on goods they transported between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. So it has become the disabled peoples’ business par excellence. We overloaded our tricycles as much as we could so we could make a maximum profit from each journey, whether it was for ourselves or for some goods trader who hired us. As a consequence, we took an important part in the business – we had money, we had many women. Of course there were musicians, we are a people of musicians. Disabled people are very, very strong. During the lootings in 1993 I even saw a paraplegic moving around with a freezer on his head.”