Israel Festival: Have wheels will sing

An award-winning Congo-based band of disabled street musicians is the closing act of the Israel Festival.

Staff Benda Bilili (photo credit: Ricky Lores)
Staff Benda Bilili
(photo credit: Ricky Lores)
The cliché about artists suffering for their art applies to Ricky Lickabu, Coco Ngambali and their merry band of fellow troubadours more than most. Lickabu, Ngambali et al comprise Staff Benda Bilili, a group of street musicians from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who will perform in the closing slot of this year’s Israel Festival on June 14.
Most of the members of the band are polio victims who live in makeshift shelters near the grounds of the zoo in the Congo capital of Kinshasa and play music that is rooted in rumba, with elements of old-school rhythm ‘n’ blues and reggae. The four core members, who play guitars and sing, are backed by a rhythm section of socially disadvantaged youngsters, including Roger Landu, who made his own instrument out of an empty fish can, a piece of wood and a guitar string and produces incredible Hendrix-like riffs on his rudimentary invention.
A recent documentary about the band, called Benda Bilili, shows the players trundling through the streets of Kinshasa on spectacularly customized motorized tricycles that look more like Disneyland hippie motorbikes than vehicles for the physically disabled.
Benda Bilili portrays the trials of the musicians, which include getting some flak from other residents of the city streets, but mostly the joie de vivre they exude in their daily life and particularly through their music. They were discovered three years ago by Vincent Kenis, a Belgian record producer who specializes in Congolese music, and he pulled the necessary strings to get the band recording facilities to put together its debut release Tres Tres Fort (Very Very Strong).
Lickabu says he and his colleagues have always been involved in music. “We started when we were very young. At the beginning we played mostly religious music at the local church,” he explains, adding that they soon began exploring the rhythmic possibilities of other musical areas and that their creative vistas received a boost from an unexpected pugilistic source.
“We mainly get our inspiration from Congolese music – urban and traditional, Congolese rumba and all the different kind of music existing in Congo. Then we discovered the afro beat with Fela, and soul music from America and, of course, from James Brown when he and some other American artists came to Kinshasa for the Mohammad Ali-George Forman fight.” The latter refers to the 1974 world heavyweight boxing match that became known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
When Kenis came across the band, neither he nor the musicians had much in the way of state-ofthe- art facilities to help get the group’s message out there, so they opted for an unusual, but also perfectly natural, recording venue.
“When we recorded, the zoo was our headquarters, so for us it was very familiar and probably the best place at that time for us to record the first album,” notes Lickabu. “We couldn’t imagine it would be okay for Vincent, the producer, but he’s sometimes more Congolese than the Congolese!” All went well with the recording sessions, and Tres Tres Fort soon began making the rounds of the radio stations and well-placed industry professionals. The band eventually got international exposure when the musicians performed in France, and the rest is history. They won the prestigious Artist Award at world music expo Womex in 2009 and have enchanted audiences across the globe with their exuberance and their driving rumbabased bluesy rhythms.
The documentary includes footage of the band members getting ready for their first foray out of the streets of Kinshasa, their first time on a plane, and their first taste of the outside world, when they go to perform in France. Their wide-eyed admiration of the Western world is reminiscent of the reaction of the Buena Vista Social Club old timers, when they stared in amazement at the skyscrapers and bright lights of New York City just over a decade ago. But Lickabu says he and his musical cohorts are not blinded by the material comforts that come their way on tour, and that there is common ground between them and the people they see on the road.
“Most of the countries we traveled to are more rich and much more organized than our country, but in the end we discovered that there is no paradise, and each country and its people have more or less similar problems. When we are traveling in Japan and Europe and we can see homeless in the streets, we feel at home,” says Lickabu.
He adds that one of the greatest sources of happiness for him and the rest of the band is that others in Congo have followed their lead and are taking their destiny in their own hands.
“There are now more and more disabled people in Kinshasa creating music bands; but even before our success, many disabled people in Congo worked hard to get out of their misery, as there is no support from the government so this is the only way.”
While he says he is aware that the public relates to the band members’ physical appearance, Lickabu believes audiences quickly get hooked on the musical vibes they put out. “I think it’s a combination of things – we are disabled, musicians and human beings, but there is always a specific way of looking at us and always will be.”
The Staff Benda Bilili gang are now a fixture on the global world music scene. They are proud of their success and of making it under their own steam.
“It was important for us to make our way independently, both in music and in life,” says Lickabu.
“That is the only way to survive.”
Even so, there must have been some moments when the band members, faced with seemingly impossible odds, felt like giving up.
“No! Never!” declares Lickabu.
That unstinting optimism will, no doubt, be front and center in the musical mix on June 14.
Staff Benda Bilili will perform at the Jerusalem Theater at 8:30 p.m. on June 14. For tickets and more information: (02) 560-5755, *6226, (02) 623-7000 and