Très Très Fort

The truly astonishing: Staff Benda Bilili.

Let’s talk about Congolese resourcefulness. First there was Konono No 1, who built their own instruments and made extraordinary music; now, also from Kinshasa, welcome to Staff Benda Bilili. This eight-strong group of varying ages share the DIY talents of Konono. For example, Roger Landu plays an electric lute of his own invention, called the satongé, fashioned from a tin can. But what is truly astonishing is that the band – and its début album – exists at all. For Staff Benda Bilili is a group of shegues handicapés (disabled homeless people) living on the streets of Kinshasa.

The music on Très Très Fort reflects reality. The songs were recorded in the open, with electricity abstracted from a local restaurant. Vincent Kenis, the producer behind Konono No 1 and the Congotronics series, was at the laptop controls. Staff Benda Bilili have a fine line in the country’s popular rumba rhythms, although the sheer ingenuity of the instrumentation, especially 17-year-old Landu’s plinky satongé, makes for idiosyncrasies. Above all, this is a light-touched sound: minimal drums, lots of guitars and vocals with lyrics mostly in French.

The haphazard recording cannot diminish the virtuosity and verve of Très Très Fort. ‘Moto Moindo’ reaches exit velocity as the satongé gets faster and faster; ‘Sala Keba’ sounds like a Congolese response to a doowop – or vocal rhythm and blues – song. Astonishing.


mag cover This article is from the April 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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