September 24, 2009 / 3:41 PM / 8 years ago

Congo's paraplegic musicians groove loud and strong

4 Min Read

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

A failure to eradicate polio through proper vaccination has left the giant central African nation with a vast population of withered paraplegics that it makes little effort to assist and which makes Staff Benda Bilili's success all the more striking.

Their debut album "Tres, Tres Fort" -- a French play on words which means either "Very, very strong" or "Very, very loud" -- began climbing European world music charts this year.

Next month, they set out on a seven-week tour with concerts in France, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain.

But their rise has yet to lift them above the daily struggle to earn enough money to eat and pay the rent, and band members must still play for hand-outs to make ends meet.

"With this rain, we won't make any money. You know, the stomach doesn't ask for mercy," said guitarist Coco Ngambali as a downpour interrupted an impromptu performance in the parking lot of one of Kinshasa's chic rooftop restaurants.

But, swatting away mosquitoes in the stairwell where the group had sought refuge, he added: "We're with friends here. It's a quiet place to compose. This is where we get our inspiration."

Even with a tour in the offing and their fame spreading, the effort just to survive in Kinshasa can be a close-run thing.

Bandleader Ricky Likabu was knocked down and left for dead by a hit-and-run driver on Sunday as he returned home on his motorized tricycle after a late-night rehearsal. Backup singer Kabose Kasungo, who was catching a lift, also ended up in hospital.

"It was late. There weren't any witnesses. So, he didn't stop," said Likabu from his hospital bed, his face torn and swollen from the collision.

The accident left him saddled with hospital bills and a motorcycle to replace. But despite his sore muscles and the stitches in his scalp, even a brief let-up in the rehearsal schedule ahead of the tour is out of the question.

"We'll play. We'll play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This is nothing," said the 55-year-old Likabu.

Seated at the end of a hospital bed, Claude Montana, the group's able-bodied drummer, chimed in with the group's mantra: "Staff Benda Bilili! Tres, tres fort!"

Editing by Paul Casciato

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