By Jon Pratty
Revolution! After an hour of great, great sounds, dance crazy people are running forward, trying to break the resolve of the hard-pressed security people at the Dome, Brighton, so they can jive by the stage. As far as the eye can see in the dark, row upon row of people are jigging, vibrating, humming, rocking, rolling. And really, they’re desperate to dance. What’s the cause of this vibratory virus?
It’s Wednesday 11 November 2009 and it’s Staff Benda Bilili: eight inspiring guys; street musicians from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What’s kind of surprising is that six of the band are disabled by polio, and they’re playing instruments improvised from scrap found in the street. Backed by a hard-core rhythm section they’re blasting the auditorium with joyful, rocking, singing, soaring rhumba-soaked sounds sung in French.
Benda Bilili are all friends from the bustling, music-filled centre of the city and since their disability centre burnt down in 2005 they’ve hung around Kinshasa Zoo. They even recorded their debut album there, out in the open air on laptops and a ‘borrowed’ electricity supply.
The band have travelled a long road, from the dusty streets of the third largest metropolis in Africa, to the drizzly, rubbish-strewn streets of Brighton; described by The Observer as ‘one of the most exciting live bands on the planet, they’re now on their very first UK tour [nine dates, ending in Oxford on 20 November] supported by the Arts Council of England.
As the gig kicked off, an expectant hush descended upon the Dome as the band tuned up, or perhaps out. They got themselves seated and the brakes were clamped on their wheelchairs. And one by one they got grooving, with a great rhythm backing, neat jangling guitars, fab vocals and harmonies – and a string instrument made from a paint can…
But not pretty music, not always. It’s sometimes strident music, sometimes screaming, sometimes appealing, sometimes disclaiming. These are songs of joy and pain, about life in the city, about the scandal of polio and the way it has spread across the continent.
Coco Ngambali [vocals, guitar] is the core songwriter and stately poet of the band. 30 years ago he met Ricky Likabu [vocals] on the Congo River Ferry, a social place in the city and a great place for buskers. They are joined by Djunana Tanga, Theophile Nsituviudi and Roger Landu on vocals and Cavalier Kiara [bass] and Montana Kinunu whacking the drums.
Seeing them on stage is a revelation; someone is always doing something dangerous. Kabose Kabamba is up on crutches, and he whirls and sweeps, switches balance and swivels his neck and eyes and head and hands. At one point he pitches over and drops a crutch; in a blink he’s back up and banging, his particular rapping style high register and very strident.
He’s next to the really rocking Djunana Tanga who bobs out of his wheelchair and breakdances [on his bum] energetically on the stage. Djunana got me screaming out loud when he somersaulted; by then we were all practically tearing the Dome apart trying to dance without breaking ranks to the front.
Not much more could hold us, and so the surge carried people forward and the dancing began. Apparently the first UK date [at the Barbican, London, the previous night] was more reserved, with the Telegraph’s reviewer feeling somewhat constrained. Not tonight: this is Brighton and practically every world music fan in the South East is here, with plenty of people on wheels too.
So yes. You should see this. This is a gig to treasure. They’re a bit James Brown, a bit Madness, and a lot Africa. Get out there and get those tickets in. Be ready to push to the front if you can; make sure you wear your dancing shoes; spin your wheels and if nothing else can be wiggled, shake your eyebrows or get someone else to move them for you… At least you’ll be enjoying it more than the man from The Telegraph.
More Staff Benda Bilili tour dates
Sunday November 15 – Milton Keynes, Stables Theatre Monday 16 November – Gateshead, The Sage Centre Tuesday 17 November – Edinburgh, Usher Hall Wednesday 18 November – Bristol, Fiddlers Friday 20 November – Oxford 02 Academy