A band of handicapped musicians from a poor, overcrowded city succeeds despite disadvantage, discouragement and a crushing lack of means. It’s a story with universal appeal—one reason that a film telling this band’s story, Benda Bilili, created a stir at Cannes and helped lift these once-obscure musicians to global fame. But make no mistake. This band could have emerged from only one place: Kinshasa, Congo, home to the most powerful dance music Africa has produced in the past hundred years. And it is participation in Kinshasa’s august musical tradition—not their heart-rending backstory—that makes this band’s second CD release such a knockout. Disabilities aside, Staff Benda Bilili is one of the most effective bands presenting the timeless Congo sound on the scene today. I would not have gone that far when the band debuted with their very fine 2009 CD, Très Très Fort. But the musical growth between that release and this one is astounding. These musicians have studied the Congo music masters of the past, and the revivalists of recent years—think Kékélé and other acoustic “rumba” acts—and arrived at a formulation that is robust, fresh, surprising and deep.
The band lineup has grown by three (to a total of ten) including another vocalist and guitarist. But the new recruits are not ringers or stars, rather team players who enhance the group’s signature vocal arrangements and crisp guitar-and-percussion driven grooves. Roger Landu’s satonge—a self-invented, one-string fiddle—is still the most prominent solo instrument, a slightly eccentric touch that distinguishes this group from all other Congo music acts. But the heart of the sound remains delightful and intricate guitar and, especially, vocal interplay.
The lead track “Osali Mabe (You’ve Done the Wrong Thing)” was inspired when the wife of a group founder left him for another man. It starts as strong, acoustic soukous and, as the arrangement builds, a host of male voices intermingle, taking solos, answering one another, harmonizing and diverging in a superbly orchestrated flow. Such winning vocals bring to mind the best of Franco’s TPOK Jazz. The animation cry, “Bouger le monde! (make the world move!)” states the band’s mission, and nearly every track to come reinforces it. “Bilanga (The Field)”—a celebration of farming—changes the formula by showcasing percussion rather than guitar, but the groove is no less ferocious. A note on the guitar sounds. They go well beyond the pristine, clear-toned electric leads of classic Congo music. There are vintage acoustic sounds, reminiscent of musty old blues recordings, and elegant meldings of electric and acoustic textures.
While most of the grooves are instantly recognizable as Congolese—from the sensual rumba of “Souci (Worries)” to the anxiously chugging minor-key lament “Djambula (TooMany Problems).” Outside influences and inspired innovations also abound, as on “Kulunu (Gangs)” a condemnation of Kinshasa’s urban street criminals. This song’s pumped-up minor key groove recalls Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” a connection only enhanced by a brief rock guitar solo and a wailing, reverb-drenched satonge break.
“Libala Ya Mungwa (Wedding with Salt)” gets back to straight-ahead Congo boogie, wedding fare indeed. The lyrics bemoan the way families’ demands for money—in the old days, it was salt—has created a steep obstacle to marriage, forcing too many men to remain single. These musicians once described themselves as “journalists,” and these eleven songs are full of sharp messages drawn from the specific realities of life in one of the world’s most troubled and challenging cities. With so may Congo stars still rehashing well-worn love dramas, this engagement and directness is refreshing. With its music supercharged and its message honed, Staff Benda Bilili project the sad realities and resilient hope of the Congo as well as than any band on the contemporary scene.