Don’t Need Your Compassion

Fame Finds Band of Congolese Polio Survivors

  • Photo Rashid Akrim

The members of Staff Benda Bilili are disabled polio victims, most of them paraplegic.

The members of Staff Benda Bilili are disabled polio victims, most of them paraplegic. They used to live and play around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo. Their guitars are made of tin cans.

The band’s message is all about illness, poverty and disability and at first sight it sounds as sensational a premise as a Benetton advertisement in the eighties.

But the music is impressive even without considering their story. Smooth vocal harmonies, Driving beat, amazing vocals—and the tin-can guitar solo kicks ass.

In 2005, two French filmmakers Florent de La Tullaye and Renaud Barret decide to make a film about the band and to introduce them to a producer. It’s the beginning of their success story. In 2009, their first album Très Très Fort received international attention and in 2010 the documentary Benda Bilili was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.

Last month, they released their second album Bouger le monde. It’s the first album they tracked in studio; the last one was recorded in the streets of Kinshasa.

“We are journalists,” says Montana Kinunu, percussionist in the band. Their songs depict Kinshasa streets and they want to convey a message as much as they want to play music. And their message is clear: “Benda Bilili” means “look beyond appearances.”

Their songs have always been educational. In 2006 during the elections they wrote and sang “Let’s Go and Vote” to incite people to participate. The United Nation Development Program then distributed it. Their songs are most of the time talking about disabilities but they talk as well about societal issues such as begging and unemployment

“Music is our passion, we are going to die as musicians, we are true musicians,” says Kinunu.

Life for the band has completely changed in the last five years. Each member of the group has bought a piece of land, they are not sleeping outside anymore and their children are able to go to school.

“We are very, very, very proud of that,” says Kinunu.

Helping people in Kinshasa is their priority. They’ve started an Non-Government Organization to do just that, they are still struggling with administrative issues but it will be effective soon. They want to help abandoned street children and disabled people in Kinshasa. They want to explain them how to work and help them to get a job.

When asked about what he thinks about resiliency, Kinunu said that he doesn’t know this word. He hasn’t heard about it, but seems pretty familiar with the concept.

“Music is our passion, we are going to die as musicians, we are true musicians,” says Kinunu. “In Canada we are going to set the place alight, get the crowd moving.”

They are on tour in North America this month, and then they go to Europe and China. On November 16 they will back to Kinshasa for a well-deserved break until March 2013.

Staff Benda Bilili / Oct. 15 / Theatre Rialto (5723 Avenue du Parc) / 8:00 pm/ $25 in advance, $30 at the door

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