STAFF BENDA BILILI INTERVIEWED (2012): Takin' it from the street

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Staff Benda Bilili: Moziki
STAFF BENDA BILILI INTERVIEWED (2012): Takin' it from the street

The connection to Renate, wherever she is, seems to be fine. But between her and Kinshasa in the Congo where Ricky Likabu, our target, is . . . that's another matter. Then of course there is the translation thing between my English through Renate into French for Likabu and back again.

And, to my amusement and frustration, lengthy questions I ask which can take as much time in translation back and forth can just be responded to with a clear “Yes” or “No”.

C'est la vie, I guess.

But it is worth the effort because Likabu, now in his late 50s, has a great story and an even better band, Staff Benda Bilili who have become world music superstars on the back of their superb debut album Tres Tres Fort -- a Best of Elsewhere 2009 album, see here -- and a doco about them made by French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye who spent six years in Kinshasa with the musicians.

STAFF_artpic_01That doco Benda Bilili! wowed them at Cannes in 2010 and has gone on to take this group of eight street musicians -- four of them polio sufferers in homemade tricycle wheelchairs and who play modified and handmade instruments – from the streets of Kinshasa and onto the world music festival circuit.

Kinshasa, thanks to Staff Benda Bilili, the Congotronics albums and the likes of Damon Albarn who worked there with local musicians, has become one of the global hotspots. But when I ask a question about whether Likabu has noticed any change there with all the interest the answers comes back a resounding, “Non”.

Even Renate laughs at that.

“There is no place in Kinshasa to do big festivals,” he says. “But we were just playing to street people where we were.”

And Staff Bend Bilili had been doing it for years before the French filmmakers, there for another purpose, heard them one night and started to follow them around.

Likabu says he grew up listening to James Brown who was his big idol. Brown went to Kinshasa – for a funk-soul and Afro concert tied to the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle fight in '74 -- and Likabu saw the show, but his influences are also great African musicians such as rumba legend Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Papa Wemba.

Recently filmmaker de la Tullaye said he learned in Kinshasa that dreams kept people alive, allowed them to walk tall and create projects even if nothing came of them in the end.

Put that to Likabu however and he laughs.

“No, this was not a dream for us. I told Florent that one day we will be touring Europe. So it wasn't a dream it was a reality.”

Because of their success, Staff Benda Bilili can never make another album like Tres Tres Fort but they they have just finished recording a second album, Trop Trop Fort Bouge de Monde (approximately Extremely Moved by the World) and “the music is even better because of the experiences we have had in the past few years”.

craw51The line-up coming to New Zealand for Womad in March is essentially the same line-up as on that remarkable album – “one or two have gone and others have come in” – but a key player is certainly there, Roger Landu who play an electric single-string guitar of his own invention.

At this Likabu gets very enthusiastic and says Landu plays everything, sings also.

The global success of Staff Benda Bilili – once playing to the poor, dispossessed and former soldiers now adrift – has made for considerable difference in their personal circumstances he says.

“It has majorly changed out lives we now have house an car and the kids are at school,” he laughs.

And with that, the line to Kinshasa flickers and crackle . . . and Ricky Likabu is gone.

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