Congo's paraplegic musicians groove loud and strong

Thu Sep 24, 2009 11:35am EDT
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By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA (Reuters Life!) - In the Congolese capital Kinshasa, there are just two state concessions for the disabled. One is a half-price fare on ferries across the Congo River, the other is free entrance to the dilapidated city zoo.

The ferry discount spawned a wheelchair-bound syndicate trafficking cheap clothes and alcohol, while the zoo became the home venue of Staff Benda Bilili -- a band of paraplegic musicians about to launch a 32-concert tour of Europe.

"We tried to sing with able-bodied musicians. It didn't work," said singer Theo Nsituvuidi of the social stigma and exclusion faced by the group, whose name means "to put forward what is hidden".

"So, what were we supposed to do? ... Since they didn't want to play with us, we did it ourselves."

An unwavering philosophy of self-reliance runs through Staff Benda Bilili's music, which blends rock, reggae, 1970s U.S. funk, and their own brand of Afro-Cuban rumba played at the lightning-fast pace of one the world's most chaotic cities.

Lyrics implore parents to vaccinate their children against polio, or speak of the pangs of family separation. Instruments are often handmade and include a single-string harp fashioned from a coffee can and a bit of wire, invented and plucked by a street kid adopted by the band.

Plagued by decades of corruption and one of the world's deadliest conflicts, Congo is struggling to recover. But its annual per capita healthcare spending is still the world's lowest at just $15.

HIT-AND-RUN   Continued...