Words by Mark Ellingham
Many Songlines’ readers will first have encountered Staff Benda Bilili on YouTube, with that extraordinary video showing the group singing ‘Na Lingui Yo’ in the grounds of the derelict Kinshasa zoo. There were two startling facts about the band: that most of the band lived in a building in the zoo; and that they were mostly disabled victims of polio. But what we fell in love with was the song, old-style Congolese rumba, sung with a warmth that brought a lump to your throat, and punctuated by a solo by a young street kid called Roger, played on a home-made one-string guitar, the satongé.
Staff Benda Bilili had quite a journey. Viral success led to an album, Très Très Fort, world tours, and a movie. These days the band have houses of their own and their own NGO, housing and training Kinshasa’s disabled people and street kids. That’s where part of the profits from this new CD are going. But it’s good to report that Staff Benda Bilili’s difficult second album is a triumph. Like its predecessor, it has been produced by Crammed’s Vincent Kenis (of Congotronics fame), though this time he has shifted from recording live at the zoo to the Renapec Studio, where Franco and Papa Wemba made some of their finest work. The result is a more professional sound but it is one that arguably works better on record. The 11 songs are mellower than on the band’s debut, less rocky than the live show, and pay more attention to the vocals, whose leads are shared by no less than seven singers. It’s hard to single out individual vocal performances, for each has achieved the Bilili key signature: the warmth and easygoing rumba lilt.
And what of Roger, the Hendrix of the one-string? He has kept his style and instrument intact, and played through studio equipment it sings just as sweetly as before (and perhaps a tad more tunefully). So, fellow Bilili fans, here’s an essential and enjoyable purchase for the autumn.