It's hard to explain Staff Benda Bilili to anyone without sounding like someone who listens to NPR 24 hours a day. At work, at home, in the car, on the computer. Staff Benda Bilili are homeless, Congolese, paraplegic street musicians. They were paid $50 each for a song called "Let's Go and Vote," a song that reportedly increased voting by 70%, and made them famous, but couldn't get them out of the streets. They're struggling to obtain proper visas to tour Europe, and maybe America, with their homemade instruments and songs of inspiration. A tour that could finally afford them proper homes... or at least wheelchairs. Their music is world music with a third world story.
Which is why lots of people reading that paragraph will never get to this one. This is a country that refuses to pay attention to 15,000 violent deaths of black Americans, which makes "homeless, Congolese, paraplegic street musicians" a tough sell. It's a shame that the most basic of biographical information is the only way to introduce Staff Benda Bilili, especially having never met any of the group members. Or been to Africa. Or had Polio. I don't even know which member of the group wrote me back--his responses to my questions were forwarded to me by a promo guy at Crammed Discs, the Belgian label that put out Staff Benda Bilili's 11-song LP, Tres Tres Fort. A few years ago, Andy Morgan followed them around in the zoo where they record and saw them perform with De La Soul in the audience...so if NPR is on a commercial break, it's worth taking a minute.
The members of Staff Benda Bilili play their instruments with an exuberance that's only reserved for the insane in this country (Morgan even opens up his article for The Independent wondering what they have to be so happy about). But happiness might be all they have. The music is soulful and inspired, breaking the language barrier and maybe even the cultural divide. Even in the face of genocide, poverty and disease. And despite the most basic facts, it should be celebrated...and certainly not pitied.
Other than your lyrics, which i don't understand, what is sad about your music?
Nothing is sad about our music. A white journalist once told us that our music sounded like "Blues". I had no idea of what "Blues" was. I realized afterwards that he was refering to the melancholy within our music. Even if you don't understand the words, the beauty of the melody touches your soul. You can relate melancholy to sadness if you will. But in congolese "classic"music, (Franco, Tabu Ley, Wendo Kolosoy...) melancholy is everywhere even if the lyrics are "happy"... Our lyrics are always lyrics of hope though.
What is happy about your music? What's the happiest lyric you ever wrote?
The song "avramandole" is about screwing your lady big time! It urges you to dig deeper and deeper and deeper til she goes wild. We also did a song which is a tribute to James Brown, it's called "Sex machine", cause the disabled people a.k.a the "bamuelas" are extremly hot and horny. To the SBB these are definitely "happy lyrics".
Are the lyrics sad? What's the saddest lyric you ever wrote?
People say that the song "Polio" is sad. It is sad, but it makes me laugh because I get the picture of how I look on my crutches. It's about my condition, but the lyrics are full of hope so I don't know...We don't think in terms of sadness or happiness when we create our music
When did you contract Polio, how old were you? Are you?
I was 6 years old. I'm 58 now. But I do remember the time i was healthy... I played football and all that.
How has your life changed since "Let's Go and Vote" was written?
Nothing has changed really. We still sleep outside on the curves. The elections haven't change a thing in this country. The situation is getting worst and worst for the population, disabled or not. The album and the tour are the only things that will change our lives.
Do you think the international community has "looked beyond appearances,"and seen you as more than "disabled Congolese musicians"?
Can you define what is handicap? Everybody's got a "handicap" of his own. We don't consider ourselves as disabled. We are musicians first, all of us are gifted craftsmen, we do all types of jobs to survive. We got many children and do our best to feed them. We don't care what people think of us. The only judgement is on stage, and we will rock the place.
What is loud and what is strong about your album?
The title of the album is "tres tres fort" in french it means very very strong. You have to be "very strong" to survive in the streets of Kinshasa. The album is a tribute to all the people who live in the streets with us : the street kids or "sheges", the $1 whores, the refugees from the East, the orphans, the poor families, all the disabled. All of us have been completely neglected by the authorities. We are the true heroes of this country and we are a time bomb. " Tres tres fort " is our manifesto.
Is there a special bond between the band and the zoo gardens near which you record?
We've been rehearsing in the zoo for ages. It's a place where you can rest, where nobody bothers you. The air is always cool there and we can practice our singing quietly. It's also a hang out for all the "sheges". This place gives us inspiration. It's like our giant "living-room" with sofas and a big TV screen! We even recorded the album there.
How much closer are you to performing in Europe? Or the U.S.?
Our tour manager is currently struggling to get us visas etc But it's a pain in the ass. All we can do now is pray and wait.
What did you think of the visiting American musicians you have met?
Were they american? As i said before we will rock the place wherever it may be.
What does Article 15 mean to Staff Benda Bilili?
Means "struggle things out or die". Everybody knows the Article 15 in Kinshasa.