From Socialist Voice, March 2011


Benda Bilili!

A big hit during the recent Dublin Film Festival, Benda Bilili! is likely to inspire music in the same manner that the Buena Vista Social Club did back in the 1990s. This is soul music from Kinshasa that will lift your heart, and get the rest of you jumping and jiving!
     A big hit during the recent Dublin Film Festival, Benda Bilili! will inspire music buffs in the same manner that the Buena Vista Social Club did back in the 1990s.
     The story of a combo that ends up touring European cities to promote their CD Très Très Fort (“Very very strong”), the film starts in the group’s rehearsal space, the “ragged bone shop of the heart”—the city zoo—which provides the necessary quiet they need to play and sing. The musicians of Staff Benda Bilili are led by Leon Ricky Likabu, whose songs they perform with pathos, humour, and an energy that leaps off the screen.
     Their resources are limited, as the core members are paraplegics who get around in customised wheelchairs made from bike parts and who live in a shelter for the disabled. They live in a way that makes the notion of “independent living” redundant: befriending the homeless children who hang around at their rehearsals, telling their children to learn all they can at school, attending local football matches.
     In the evenings they busk outside restaurants frequented by tourists and so become acquainted with two film-makers who end up filming them over a period of five years, introducing them to a Belgian record producer who specialises in Congolese music. This culminates in the making of the CD and the eventual tour of Europe.
     The men themselves and their families’ conversations touch on perceptions of Europe and Europeans from the vantage point of those who are locked outside, their expectations of each other as musicians, and the importance of music as a way of communicating important messages, such as polio vaccinations, and not looking down on those below you. (The band’s name was chosen because Benda Bilili means “Look beyond appearances” in Lingala.)
     They are joined by a boy who also busks the city streets at night. He is Roger Landu, who plays an instrument, the satonge, that he’s made himself from a tin can, a string, and a bent stick. He gets a great sound out of this home-made lute and earns the respect of his older comrades.
     The film was selected by the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (directors’ fortnight) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and was shown on the opening day. At the Dublin Film Festival it got a great reaction from the audience, and it will be showing at the Irish Film Centre in Eustace Street, Dublin, from 25 March. Here’s hoping the band will play a gig in Dublin some time soon—preferably not a sit-down venue!

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