When the body is music

arvan's picture

(Image courtesy of Crammed Disc and Staff Benda Bilili)

I have been listening for conversations about people with disabilities who are speaking up about their experiences in claiming their own identity on their own terms and not society's.  Empowering organizations, advocacy and rights groups or websites, writers and anyone in between. 

Today, I found a website called The New Internationalist.  I posted a couple things from them already and was happy to add them to my bookmark file.  I was about to leave the site, happy in my previous discoveries, when I stumbled upon something in the 'mixed media' section of the site, that just rocked my world: Staff Benda Bilili. 

There is nothing more beautiful to me than the human spirit, conveyed through music - guided by emotion instead of demographics.  I don't want to buy from the 'record industry' because they found a way to call something 'music' and sell it to me.  I want to feel the industry of a person's life, played out in the space where their body meets the musical instrument or it becomes the instrument.  I don't need to know the language of the song, to hear the soul of the singer. 

Honesty, human expression, love, life, feeling, yearning, caring - these are all things that every person feels.  They are our birthright and perhaps, together they comprise the only true currency of our world - humanity. 

Some of us have a difficult time being accepted by society on our own terms: women, queer, trans, bisexual, gay, lesbian and disabled (to name only a few).  While every human knows the experience of identifying one's self, many of us are also fighting to prove that we are not some negative definintion as given by society.  The individual is fighting for the attention of society, in order to be seen as one declares one's self to be.  It is understanding that we all seek.

The place where work is done in understanding another person, is in the ears of the listener.  Staff Benda Bilili turns that work into the most unimaginable pleasure.

No music review is complete without excerpts from reputable sources, so here are a few:

from The New Internationalist:

But what is truly astonishing is that the band – and its début album – exists at all. For Staff Benda Bilili is a group of shegues handicapés (disabled homeless people) living on the streets of Kinshasa.

The music on Très Très Fort reflects reality. The songs were recorded in the open, with electricity abstracted from a local restaurant. Vincent Kenis, the producer behind Konono No 1 and the Congotronics series, was at the laptop controls. Staff Benda Bilili have a fine line in the country’s popular rumba rhythms, although the sheer ingenuity of the instrumentation, especially 17-year-old Landu’s plinky satongé, makes for idiosyncrasies. Above all, this is a light-touched sound: minimal drums, lots of guitars and vocals with lyrics mostly in French.

The haphazard recording cannot diminish the virtuosity and verve of Très Très Fort. ‘Moto Moindo’ reaches exit velocity as the satongé gets faster and faster; ‘Sala Keba’ sounds like a Congolese response to a doowop – or vocal rhythm and blues – song. Astonishing.


On the Crammed Disc artist's page for Staff Benda Bilili, some stunning reviews as well:

The Evening Standard (UK)

As paraplegic musicians in hand-cranked wheelchairs on the streets of Kinshasa, Staff Benda Bilili have an incredible story. Their name translates as "look beyond the apperarances" and that's where their music comes in. With a rumba groove, rattling multi-layered percussion and the sound of a recycled tin-can going spacey solos, the music is fantastic. The creativity and skill in adverse circumstances are a metaphor for Africa. 

Telegraph (UK)

“The daily burden of being handicapped in a manic and brutal city like Kinshasa has certainly framed their 'blues’,” he says. “But Staff Benda Bilili don’t define themselves as handicapped. They define themselves first as musicians.” — Gervase De Wilde

The Independent (UK)

Even by the diverse standards of the Congotronics scene, Staff Benda Bilili are like no African group you've come across.

Comprised chiefly of polio victims who prowl the Zoological Gardens of Kinshasa on their customised tricycles, they possess an extra layer of outsider status, while their musical idiosyncrasy is guaranteed by their able-bodied teenage prodigy Roger Landu, a virtuoso on the one-string satonge lute he invented and built.

Recorded outdoors at night, using power "borrowed" via a 100-metre extension cable, the songs on Très Très Fort come with a patina of distant traffic noise and, on "Polio", chirping crickets and toads.


That's where all those endlessly predictable images of poverty and disease that dominate the Western media's coverage of Africa are so aberrant. Africa doesn't need our pity. Africa demands and deserves our admiration and wonder, our humility and respect. Staff Benda Bilili embody this truth with total dedication and style — Andy Morgan



Staff Benda Bilili, singing "Polio", a song about living with polio, urging parents to get their children vaccinated and place value on all life.  (The song is can be viewed here by clicking on the link marked "Press" at the top of the page.  "Polio" is embedded as a Quicktime video on the page with the lyrics.)



Here is the band, in their recording session at the zoo, where power was available for this recording.

(Image courtesy of Crammed Disc and Staff Benda Bilili)

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