Staff Benda Bilili, the extraordinary band from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, makes its New York debut at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m. The program is presented by the World Music Institute.
The acclaimed musicians and vocalists–whose foundation are four paraplegic singer/guitarists–was formed by homeless street musicians who lived in and around the zoo in the nation’s capital, Kinshasa. Staff Benda Bilili is celebrated as much for its uplifting human interest story as for its exciting rumba-rooted grooves, energetic vocals and unique one-string tin can guitar (newly created satonge) solos. Their customized tricycles transport the musicians as well as rock the stage.
In their music of power and splendor, the steady pulse of the Congolese rumba rides alongside dynamic voices that, according to press notes, “conjure up the crooners of Havana, the toasters of Kingston and even the Godfather of Soul.” And this is what the audience at Symphony Space will experience as Staff Benda Bilili performs songs from the recently released album “Bouger le Monde” (“Make the World Shake”).
The name Staff Benda Bilili means “look beyond appearances,” or literally, “put forward what is hidden.” The group members see themselves as genuine journalists of Kinshasa, as their songs record and provide a commentary about everyday events. One of the primary messages is that “the only real handicaps are not in the body, but in the mind.”
This theme played out in the lives of this band when in 2005 they were introduced to Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, French filmmakers who where shooting a series about musicians in Kinshasa. Their exciting encounter with Staff Benda Bilili led the filmmakers to focus on creating a documentary about the group that became the conversation piece at the Cannes Film Festival.
Subsequently de la Tullaye and Barret introduced Staff Benda Bilili to the record company Crammed Discs, which released their first album, “Tres Tres Fort” (2009), recorded at the Kinshasa Zoo.
This album catapulted Staff Benda Bilili to the forefront, making them one of the most exemplary African bands around from both a musical perspective as well “as a symbol of resilience and triumph over adversity.” Consequently, the band received the 2009 Womex Artist of the Year Award and was voted Best Group in the 2010 Songlines Music Awards. Since then, Staff Benda Bilili has toured extensively in Europe, Japan and Australia at concert halls and major festivals, including WOMAD.
The band members continue to live in Kinshasa, where they either have a house or are in the process of building one. They also have new motorbikes and are now able to send their children to school. However, it doesn’t stop there. With the same zeal that they picked themselves up and formed the band, their new goal is to help other disabled people and homeless children around them to get homes and jobs. In addition, they are founding a school and have created a nongovernmental organization for that purpose.
Tickets for the Staff Benda Bilili concert are $35 for the general public and $30 for WMI Friends. For further information, call 212-545-7536 or visit www.worldmusicinstitute.org/event/staff-benda-bilili.