Congolese street-band 'amazed' by international stardom

In just one year Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili has swapped performing on the dusty streets of Kinshasa to the international limelight and some of Europe's biggest stages.

"We are very happy," says Coco Ngambali Yakala - or Coco - a guitarist and a vocalist who suffered from polio at a young age.

"We travel all around and we take the plane all the time. And it's just amazing."

The band is unique not only because of the style of their music but also because of who they are - disabled and homeless musicians from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We have a very busy schedule right now," adds Theophile Nsituvuidi Nzonza - or Theo - another vocalist and guitarist in a wheelchair.

"Even before starting the band, we knew this might happen - we had faith in our abilities."

Band on the move

Staff Benda Bilili has mastered the technique of combining the tales of brutal hardship and street life with the rhythms and melodies jazz and blues.

Image caption Theo doesn't sleep on streets any more but is still waiting to buy his own house

One review described their sound as "a curious mix of Afro-Rumba, Latin Rhythms and rich vocal harmonies".

This summer they have more than 50 stage commitments from Canada to Europe to Asia, including China and Japan. They are clearly a band on the move.

But Staff Benda Bilili wants to move even further and leave behind the poverty and hardship that dominated their lives.

"We don't have to live in the street," says Theo, who is still waiting to experience the more tangible benefits of the critical acclaim and international recognition that the band now enjoys.

"We are looking forward to the time when we will actually be able buy our own house," he says. "That is something we are still waiting for."

The band's name roughly translates as "Look Beyond Appearances". Five of the group's eight members are polio survivors. On stage most of them perform in wheelchairs or on crutches.

Zoo venue

In their early days in Kinshasa they used to be seen riding improvised tricycles to move around.

"We were trying to make some money every night playing together," remembers Coco.

At the end of each day the men would leave their daily jobs as cigarette vendors, electricians or goods trader and play in front of restaurants frequented by westerners to earn some extra cash.

"All the white people who go to these restaurants, they would give out cash when they've eaten and drunk well," Coco adds. "We were there outside these restaurants to get some money from these happy people."

"Our music is really joyous. Whenever we played, people will start dancing and be full of joy," adds Theo.

This is when they were first noticed by a Belgian record producer who established them as a band by producing Tres Tres Fort, their first album. It was recorded outside at the Kinshasa Zoo, where the band used to hang around and practice their music.

They say that is when their lives started to change: "We slept in the streets. But now we play lots of music and with the European tour there have been lots of changes."

Image caption Coco loves flying from one concert venue to another

Staff Benda Bilili is now in France after spending several days in UK taking part in the Glastonbury and Womad music festivals.

Despite a very busy international schedule, the band has squeezed in a few dates to perform in their own country this summer. And now they are not just any other street musician.

"Whenever we return to Kinshasa everyone is very happy," says Coco.

"When we roll around on our wheelchairs they greet us and say: 'Oh you are a star, you are a star, everybody is happy for us."

Theo, however, is thoughtful of the street musicians who didn't make it big like them.

"I don't know what goes on in other people's hearts," he says. "It could be that some people are a bit envious."

The band genuinely believe there is a role for them to play in helping others on the streets. "We want to encourage them to do music and earn their own living," says Theo.

"Our project is to have our own families and our own homes. But we also want to help other disabled people and create a social care centre for them."

Disabled people in Kinshasa currently have very little help.

The group had been singing about social issues even before its international recognition. One of their songs urging people to vote was used during the elections by the UN.

According to their record company, the band never received any royalty payment for the song despite several requests.

But the matter now seems to be a blip in the story of Staff Benda Bilili rather than the question of chasing money they needed to buy food it once was.

"The only thing is, you carry on and never lose hope," believes Theo. "It's never too late in life to do something new."

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