Page last updated at 17:42 GMT, Saturday, 21 November 2009

Staff Benda Bilili, Africa's unlikely pop stars

Disabled Congolese band rocks the UK

By Robin Denselow
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

They rehearse in a tumbledown zoo, they are disabled and they come from one of the poorest nations on Earth. Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili have overcome more than most to put together an acclaimed tour of the UK.

Ricky Lickabu
Ricky Lickabu says the band's musical style is rooted in rumba

Ricky Lickabu and his wife, Mafuta, usually makes their money trying to sell cigarettes from a stall outside the market in Kinshasa.

But business is rarely brisk in the Congolese capital and Lickabu sells just $18 (£11) worth of cigarettes a day if he is lucky.

And the challenges he and his wife face are heightened as they are both disabled from polio.

This week, however, Mafuta Lickabu is on her own at the cigarette stall because her husband is in Britain on the first-ever UK tour with his band.

Staff Benda Bilili are being feted as among the most exciting and extraordinary newcomers of the year.

There is nothing new about a story of unexpected success in the music industry, but Staff Benda Bilili are surely unique.

They have overcome hardship and disability to make it from the streets of Kinshasa to the concert halls of Britain, and shown extraordinary ingenuity in the way they create their music.

And they are surely the only band in the world who have rehearsed their music, and then recorded an album, in a zoo.


Like much of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa zoo is gradually recovering from years of hardship. During the chaotic period that marked the end of the Mobutu era, many of the animals here were taken as food by the hungry city population.

Today, there are leopards and monkeys in the cramped cages, and on a patch of grass in the middle of the zoo there are a group of polio-victims sitting playing electric guitars in their wheelchairs.

Staff Benda Bilili
The band's album has become a cult success in Europe

They have very basic equipment and only small amplifiers, but they sound tremendous, mixing gentle harmony songs about their disability with rousing rumba tunes - the basis of most great Kinshasa music - with other influences from reggae to R&B.

Staff Benda Bilili came here because it was quiet and they had nowhere else to go.

The zoo is a place of relative calm amidst the noise and chaos, amidst the poverty and energy of the third largest city in Africa, and it happens to be close to the disabled centre where they had spent much of their time.

Lickabu first met fellow band-member and polio victim Coco Ngambali when they were both working on the ferry that crosses the vast Congo river between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, a good place for the disabled to do business as Mobutu had decreed that the disabled could travel on the ferry tax-free.

They were both musicians, but formed a band with other polio victims simply because other bands in Kinshasa refused to work with them.

"I knew how to sing and play guitar but other bands wouldn't work with me," said Lickabu.

"They said that I turned up late because I was in a wheelchair, and I couldn't dance.

"So I had to start a band with other handicapped musicians, and it worked out well."

The owners of the zoo gave them permission to rehearse, and they gradually developed their own style, while managing to keep themselves and their families alive by working as electricians, tailors or street vendors.

Five-star reviews

They started out playing in the streets, trying to target areas where they might be heard by foreigners who had more money than the average city dweller, and might drop the occasional dollar at the feet of the buskers in their wheelchairs.

Amazingly, it paid off.

They came to the attention of the Belgian record producer Vincent Kenis, a specialist in Congolese music, and he helped them to record not in a studio but in the open air, out in the zoo.

Roger Landu
Roger Landu made his own musical instrument from an empty fish can

The band's debut album, Tres Tres Fort (Very Very Strong) was recorded by Kenis using microphones connected to his large laptop computer, with power provided by a mains cable connected to a deserted refreshment bar nearby.

The album features the guitarists in the wheelchairs, of course, along with one other remarkable Kinshasa survivor.

Roger Landu is a teenager who used to live on the streets, but spent much of his time hanging around with Staff Benda Bilili. They eventually invited him to join them.

He had no money, but designed his own home-made instrument, which he made from an empty fish can, a piece of wood and one guitar string. Kenis showed him how to amplify the instrument, and he now plays like some DIY Jimi Hendrix.

Staff Benda Bilili are still not fashionable in Kinshasa - few people come to watch them rehearse in the zoo, or at the little club where they play near the airport.

But in Britain it has been a very different story.

Their first British tour has been a triumph, with five-star reviews from national newspapers.

It has been an extraordinary story - and now, hopefully, Staff Benda Bilili will be able to give up their day jobs and become full-time musicians.

Disabled Congo singers to sue UN
02 May 07 |  Africa


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