“We are the real journalists of Kinshasa,” proclaims Ricky Likabu, leader of Staff Benda Bilili, a rumba-reggae-acoustic outfit and also one of Congo’s most famous bands. It’s unexpected, but Likabu and his fellow musicians do just what journalists do: they document and comment on the everyday happenings in their hometown.
Their “musical journalism” -– complete with a record-breaking song about voting -– is popular, both in the Congo and abroad. Shows are always packed with people and bursting with energy, and as The Independent reported, the pulsating beats “remove the option to do anything but dance.”
For a group as energetic and vibrant as theirs, the name “Benda Bilili,” which translates to “look beyond appearances,” is fitting: As kids, Likabu and three of the other band members were struck with polio and have been in wheelchairs ever since. Another member stands with crutches, and a sixth, a 17-year-old, used to be one of the capital’s 40,000 street children. But as their name suggests, if you look beyond appearances, this is not a story of pity — it’s one of pride and triumph.
Likabu and his musician friends used to gather on the quiet grounds of the Kinshasa Zoo. That’s where they encountered two young French filmmakers, who brought clips to Belgian producer Vincent Kenis. Several years later, the group skyrocketed to world music stardom with their first release, Très, Très Fort. Now Womex Artist award-winners and international stars, the musicians keep themselves grounded by continuing to sing about issues that matter to them: health, happiness and citizenship in the Congo.
This week, Staff Benda Bilili begins a three-month European tour. Unfortunately, we’re not all lucky enough to see them perform live, so here are a few videos to keep you dancing.