Congolese band Staff Benda Bililli talks to RFI about going from the streets to Kinshasa to shaking up the world with their infectious brand of rumba.
Their story is one of the most remarkable on the world music scene in recent years.
A handful of musicians living on the streets of Kinshasa, many of them victims of polio, start playing music in the grounds of the city’s zoo.
By September 2012 they bring out their second much awaited and highly-acclaimed album Bouger le monde (Make the world move) and are touring the USA.
Staff Benda Bilili means "look beyond appearances" in Lingala. And indeed the band has always wanted to be appreciated for its music, not because several of its members are in wheelchairs.
But there’s no denying that while their disability may have touched western audiences, it brought them no sympathy vote in their native RDC.
Ricky Likabu , the band’s co-founder, himself a paraplegic, remembers those years on the streets with his kids.
"I saw you couldn’t do much if you’re physically disabled in my country but you could put your head to work. I had to use my brain, so I called upon my friends to start making music together.”
Attempts to play music alongside non-disabled musicians in Kinshasha hit a wall.
"They said to me "you’re disabled, you can’t dance like the others and you often arrive late, we can’t recruit disabled people.” I took that badly.”
But the band weren’t deterred.
In 2005, their energy, enthusiasm and highly original sound caught the attention of Belgian record producer, Vincent Kenis, a specialist in Congolese music.
He helped the band record their debut album Tres Tres Fort (Very Very Strong) in 2009. It became a cult hit especially in the UK, France and US.
The band also got a big boost when featured in documentary film Jupiter’s Dance by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. In 2009 they made an award-winning feature length documentary on the band called Benda Bilili!
After successful tours in Europe, Japan and Australia, the band's just released their second album Bouger le monde.
Recorded in a studio in Kinshasa, again by Francis Kenis, fears that the band might have been over-polished are unwarranted.
The album has the high-quality sound you’d expect from a studio recording, but keeps the hallmark energetic mix of rumba, jazz and funk that’s made the band so popular in the west.
Band member Montana Kinunu says the album is strong in more ways than one.
"We’re going to move the world. That’s the message on this second album. And it’s a strong one. Rhythmically, the album is strong too. These are the new sounds of the world.”
Ricky Likabu says these sounds are enriched by RDC’s many dialects.
“We’ve got at least 450 dialects back home, and that pushes me to do research and try and find new sounds. Our country’s very rich culturally, that’s what I want to show.”
Touring the US, the band is currently bringing those sounds to American ears.
And would like to build up more of a fan base on the African continent.
So far, they’ve played just one concert - in Morocco. Tanzania, bless them, have also shown an interest.