Staff Benda Bilili

El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

Oct. 24, 2012

By Tom Cheyney

Staff_Benda_BililiFew back-stories in contemporary music rival that of Staff Benda Bilili, the one-time street players from Kinshasa who have vaulted into the pantheon of the Afropop and world scenes. Fronted by five wheelchair-bound and becrutched polio victims, the inspirational Congolese group was “discovered” in the mid-2000s by a pair of French filmmakers who went on to make a rightfully acclaimed documentary about the band, Benda Bilili, and introduced them to Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, known for his ongoing series of Congotronics releases. Their first album, Très Très Fort (“Very very strong”) recorded au naturel in the ramshackle Kinshasa Zoo, came out in 2009 and was followed by a rave-worthy European tour, while the film rocked the Cannes film fest the following year. Staff Benda Bilili was supposed to play a benefit concert for LA’s Grand Performances last September, but visa and other issues forced the cancellation of the show.

As part of their first North American tour and in support of their soulfully roots-rocking second album, Bouger Le Monde (“Move the world”), the BB boyos brought their roadshow to town. Though their 90-minute-plus set delivered the goods and then some, something was missing: a proper turnout. Whatever the reason—weak promotion, conflict with first game of World Series, general apathy, the curse of El Rey—less than a hundred folks turned up. Those of us with a long memory recall other woefully underattended African and world roots gigs in the past—an Ayinde Barrister fuji trance-a-thon at the late, lamented Music Machine with just 50 or so Nigerian and other hardcore globalist groovers comes to mind back in the day—but few as egregious as this one.

Staff Benda Bilili - Coco Yakala Ngambali / Tonkara

Enough carping. This was, despite the “light” house, one helluva show, a hip-shaking dance party that started with the first joyfully desperate beat and never let up. Staff BB worked a polyrhythmic mélange that included elements of reggae, Afro-funk, regional folkloric strains, and the ever-present Congo rumba-soukous family of musical goodness. They’ve pumped up their sound a bit, but still retain the rough n’ ready foundational grittiness from their busking days. The five core members lined up in front, rockin’ their medically equipped selves, backed by the bassist, drummer, and Roger the dervish on satonge (his eerie-banshee-like homemade one-string and tincan lutey whats-its), trading lead vocal duties and moving in and out of two-, four-, even eight-part equatorial R&B harmonies that brought to mind such classic Congolese-Zairean icons as Tabu Ley Rochereau, Franco Makiadi, Sam Mangwana, and Pepe Kalle.

Although tunes like the smokin’ funk nuggets Bilanga (with its hedgecutting satonge riffs) and Ne Me Quitte Pas (French for “don’t leave me”) lowered the boom on the dance floor, Staff BB also took a darker, more ominous turn on Djambula, which loosely translates as “too many problems” and discusses the spread of evil into various corners of Congo society in one of the several regional languages they sing in. But the highlights of their set, at least for this reporter, were the likes of the old-school rumba of Tangu I Fueni (“The time has come”) and Mutu Esalaka (“The brains are OK”), the peppy soukous of Libala Ya Mungwa (“Wedding with salt”) and the floating slow-jam Souci (“Worries”), which featured Coco’s sweetly repeating guitar figure underpinning a collective vocal workout steeped in la nostalgie of the grand Congolese style of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s.

That last not-so-worrisome tune, part of Staff BB’s extended encore, also elicited a rare thing--a well-delivered moment of audience participation. With the encouragement of the band, the small but mighty gathering pulled off a pretty good group harmony, actually kinda nailed it, leaving the Kinois octet smiling and laughing in appreciation.

Tom Cheyney has been writing about the global and roots music scenes in Los Angeles and around the world since fax machines were high tech.