Staff Benda Bilili was kind enough to let us tag along as they explored what little of NYC they could from the vantage point of wheelchairs and crutches on a tight touring schedule in a city where parking a handicap accessible tour van (or two) is nearly impossible. That didn't break their spirits though. These awesome, talented dudes were just happy to be here spreading their optimistic message to the world.
Photo stills from Benda Bilili! (2010)
Back in October, we watched a documentary called “Benda Bilili!”. The film follows a group of paraplegic street musicians from Congo, spanning the band's progression from 2004 to 2009, and offers a sympathetic yet unashamed look at their lives and the ever-present struggles that exist in the city of Kinsasha and it's neighboring villages. We were both transfixed and elevated by their livelihood, this art they created out of necessity: the unwavering FACT that their dedication would lead them from living on the streets of Congo, to touring their music around the world and bettering the lives of their families.
Their commitment throughout is admirable and sensible, if not lovingly naive. If you're living in chaos, why do anything else besides what you love doing with hopes that it will one day save you? They succeeded. Coco used to sleep on cardboard. Bingo, he bought a mattress. Ricky considered the prospect of his music becoming successful in Europe to be his last chance to leave anything behind for his children. Today, their new album “Bouger le Monde!” tops European radio charts. You should really check out the film for yourself. Aside from the fact that it's an insanely good documentary, it lends a volume of context and perspective to their songs that you'll be completely missing if you're shaking your pasty white butt without knowing where they are coming from and what they're about (that's not to say that the content is only defined by their backgrounds, their personalities prove that much). Hopefully it will speak to you about how sweet life can be, maybe it will inspire you. In any case, it will force you to look beyond appearances.
Immediately after seeing it, we sought them out to find that they were relatively easy to contact with the conveniently cozy methods of modern day PR. It was a bit surreal to us that this was such a smooth sailing process now, which wasn't the case for the filmmakers when they traveled by air, land and water to locate and reunite the band in 2006 in order to finish their first album.
When the band arrived in New York, we were met with the same cheery dudes, a bit older and a bit shinier, now enthralled by the chance to do some sight seeing in the city. Roger, the street kid we knew for crafting his own monochords out of coffee cans and string, is now a full fledged bro, chain smoking and flipping through pictures of children, an infant, a woman on his smart phone. He nearly jumps out of his seat at to point out the statue of liberty as we catch a brief glimpse of it through the avenues on our way to Battery Park. We park the vans at the edge of the park and they're immediately drawn towards the water, taking cell phones pictures of the statue in the distance to show their families. They shout “Benda Bilili” and pose triumphantly as we snap away at them like tourists.
We headed back to Symphony Space where they were determined to get to work, focused and intent on perfecting the sound before the show, their first ever in New York. When they finally perform, they become highly animated versions of themselves. They don't seem burdened by their wheelchairs, they are going to play their songs with precision and they are going to have fun doing it. Unlike many of their contemporaries, this isn't a performance in which we're supposed to watch in awe with some kind of passive empathy as they croon away and strum some guitars. They are celebrating their lives and they want you to do so with them.
We'll leave you with this song, a revealing clip from 2009 in which the band prepares to leave home and offer their music to Europe for the first time.
For more from Staff Benda Bilili – http://www.staffbendabilili.com
For more from Joe Perez – http://www.eyebodega.com