Band of Congolese polio survivors wows audiences
The band, which has a CD out called Très Très Fort , is made up of polio survivors and former street children.
M ontana Kinunu is conjuring a drum kit from a broom laid across a plastic beer crate and weighed down with a rock. He pulls off his shirt, picks up a pair of battered drumsticks, and is soon tapping a fast, skittering rhythm, slapping his bare feet on the dirt floor. Beside him, Roger Landu is putting together his satonge, a single-string instrument fashioned from an amplified tin can and a guitar string stretched on a bent stick.
The rehearsal space is an open-air bar, imperfectly shielded from the heat, dust, and commotion of a busy neighborhood in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It seems improbable, but Montana, Roger, and their bandmates have been touring European venues with this same improvised kit, testing the skills of sound engineers and winning rave reviews.
One by one, the band members arrive, several traveling on hand-cranked or motorized two-seater tricycles. Songwriter Coco Ngambali, who has the craggy features and upper-body strength of a retired wrestler, opens the proceedings with the band’s rallying cry. His call “Staff!” is answered in unison: “Benda Bilili très très fort!”
Bandleader Ricky Likabu whistles a tune, and the group, Staff Benda Bilili, eases into a languid bolero intro. Ricky calls for a halt to reprimand the brass section for coming in late. When they restart, the music is a notch tighter. The rhythm steps up and is suddenly irresistible. A gaggle of young onlookers sings along with the chorus. A hardboiled-egg vendor pauses to watch. A passing shoe-polisher keeps time by clacking his wooden brushes.
Ricky and Coco, along with guitarist Theo Nsituvuidi, vocalist Djunana Tanga-Suele, and atalaku (rap-style vocalist) Kabamba Kabose Kasungo, had polio as children, and they’ve fended for themselves for five decades in a country wracked by conflict and corruption. They formed a cooperative to trade goods back and forth across the Congo River between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, and though they weren’t destitute, they often slept on the streets near the ports where they made their living.
The other band members are former street children, of whom there are an estimated 15,000 in Kinshasa. Roger, the youngest member, invented his satonge while living on the streets. Ask kids downtown about “Papa Ricky,” and their faces light up. “People distrust street children,” he explains. “They see them as sorcerers, beggars, and thieves. But we treated them as our own. And of course they helped us too.” There are always kids on hand to carry the band’s equipment or push the tricycles when the motors give out.
"They had 10-dollar guitars and a lot of determination, and they just kept working until they were ready to perform."
Ricky and his friends formed Staff Benda Bilili in 2003. Joseph Mpia, a fellow polio survivor and friend of the band, remembers the first rehearsals in Kinshasa’s derelict zoo. “They went there because it was quiet, and free for us. They had 10-dollar guitars and a lot of determination, and they just kept working until they were ready to perform.”
The fringe status of the Staff Benda Bilili collective – the name means “look beyond appearances” in Lingala – has limited the band’s success at home but arguably has helped win the attention and respect of documentary filmmakers, audiences, and critics abroad. The band’s album, Très Très Fort (which means “very, very strong”), was recorded at the zoo and released last spring, and in November, they won the Womex Award in Copenhagen, Denmark, for international music. Next month, they’ll play at the Montréal Jazz Festival.
The band calls its style “rumba blues.” It’s steeped in classic Cuban-influenced Congolese rumba and laced with plenty of other ingredients: funk, soul, afrobeat, reggae, and the intense rhyming shouts of their atalaku, Kabose. Sung in Lingala with occasional forays into French, Swahili, Kikongo, and Kiteke (the dialect of Kinshasa’s Pool region), their songs tell of friendship, love and lust, busking, missing a sister who lives across the river, sleeping on cardboard, and looking forward to better days.
The band has joined Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and golf legend (and polio survivor) Jack Nicklaus as part of Rotary International’s latest public relations campaign to remind the world how close polio eradication is. “We’re handicapped by polio, and we are the first group to sing about polio, so naturally we’re ready to help,” says Ricky.
Staff Benda Bilili wrote and recorded the song “Polio,” in which they urge parents to understand the importance of vaccinating their children. “I was born as a strong man, but polio crippled me,” they sing. “Parents, please go to the vaccination center / Get your babies vaccinated against polio / Please save them from that curse … The one who is disabled is no different from the others / Why should he be? / Treat all your children without discrimination / Don’t throw anyone on the side.”
As a result of vaccination campaigns involving negotiated cease-fires with armed groups and unprecedented coordination among regions, polio is no longer endemic in Congo. But the virus can easily cross borders. In response to imported outbreaks in Central and West Africa, 85 million children in 19 countries were vaccinated in a cross-border campaign in March and April.
“Parents are responsible for their children, and they need to know how to avoid diseases,” Ricky says. “There are still too many who don’t realize it’s important.”