25 April 2010

Staff Benda Bilili

When I first saw this group come on stage at Switzerland's 2010 Cully Jazz Festival in wheelchairs, on crutches and clutching homemade instruments, I thought this is either going to be a gimmick or pure genius. About 5 seconds into their performance the hairs stood up on my neck and I knew it was the latter. Make the effort to remember the name Staff Benda Bilili, because they are going to do big things.

This is how they are described by their MySpace page (www.myspace.com/staffbendabilili): Staff Benda Bilili are like nothing you have ever seen or heard before. A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in and around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo, they make music of astonishing power and beauty. The band's mesmerising rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals, remind you at times of Cuban nonchalance, at other times of the Godfather of Soul himself. You can hear echoes of old-school rhythm and blues, then reggae, then no-holds barred funk. Four senior singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are weird, infectious guitar-like solos performed by young Roger Landu, (an ex-street kid the band took under their wing), who plays a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.