Disabled Congolese Musicians Become World Hit

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

A group of Congolese musicians is using music to overcome obstacles – both economic and social – that come with being disabled in a poor country. Called Staff Benda Bilili, they are on course to be a global sensation and are looking forward to their first European tour. A remarkable achievement for anyone from a war-torn country, let alone for musicians who live as paraplegics in the slums of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinshasa).

The South’s disabled are a large population and often suffer more than even the poorest residents. It is estimated that there are 500 million disabled people in the world, with mental, physical or sensory impairment. As many as 80 percent of all disabled people live in isolated rural areas in developing countries, and in some countries more than 20 percent of the population is classed as disabled (UN).

Obstacles are everywhere for the disabled and just being able to economically survive, let alone thrive, can be a superhuman struggle. There are many physical and social barriers in most countries which thwart full participation, and millions of children and adults live lives of segregation and degradation.

The four songwriters and musicians of Staff Benda Bilili use homemade wheelchairs to get around Kinshasa. The ‘wheelchairs’ resemble bicycles, tricycles and motorbikes, and are a testament to the resourcefulness of the band’s members. They sing about contemporary problems, like the importance of polio vaccinations – several of the band members are confined to wheelchairs because of polio (http://www.polioeradication.org/).

When performing, they are joined by a young group of acoustic rhythm musicians to complete their act.

One of the musicians, Roger Landu, just 17, plays a one-string lute called the satonge. He built it from old milk powder tin cans, a discarded fish basket and a single electrical wire. He builds the instruments for sale as well, charging US $20 for each one.

Benda Bilili means “look beyond appearances” in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in Kinshasa.

Lounging after a recent performance on his hand-built moped wheelchair, Coco Ngambali, the group’s primary songwriter, told The Independent: “We see ourselves as journalists. We’re the real journalists because we’re not afraid of anyone. We communicate messages to mothers, to those who sleep on the streets on cardboard boxes, to the shégués (the disabled homeless).”

The band has a scrappy, street-wise persona. Being disabled, the members have had to fiercely protect their own security and economic position in society. Life on the streets for the band members, who were homeless – living near the city’s zoo – when they started, involved violent attacks and frequent attempts by thieves to rob them of the few possessions they have.

Polio victims were often abandoned by their parents and left on the streets to survive in Congo. It is a double pain: the disabled are seen as possessing demonic powers and are feared by able-bodied people. With this outsider status, the disabled have developed highly creative ways to survive, working as traders on the streets.

Staunchly self-reliant, the band members built up their musical careers with no help from others and have only just recently garnered attention from European world music fans. Prior to their recent success, they would have to busk on the street near the zoo – or even across the street from the United Nations office in Kinshasa – to make money for food.

None of the band members have formal musical training and they have learned what they know by training their ears to the sound of musical notes. Their songs can be decorated with the sounds of animals commonly heard, such as chirping frogs, or just the street noise around the zoo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtVZhaZp6Ng).

The powerful web video service You Tube has driven awareness of the band, as hundreds of thousands of people have viewed their videos online. Their debut album is called Très Très Fort (Very, Very Strong) and is available from  Crammed Discs (http://www.crammed.be/news/index.htm). A feature film about Staff Benda Bilili is about to be completed by film producers Renaud Barrett and Florent de la Tullaye.

Another band with disabled members that is garnering success is Liyana (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLayxPj8OpI) from Zimbabwe. Despite the obstacles of hyperinflation, cholera, hunger and poverty in the country, the band recently completed a US tour. Their song ‘Never Give Up’ says it all: after being rejected from the African Idol television talent contest because of their wheelchairs, they didn’t let it stop them from going on to do a US tour.

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