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Congolese Band Staff Benda Bilili Rocks Even When Most of Its Members Can’t Walk

Only a few dozen people turned up for Wednesday night’s concert by Staff Benda Bilili, the eight-man ensemble from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lucky them.

Here’s what they heard: Six superbly varied but complementary voices raised in exuberant harmonies with lyrics in native African Lingala and traces of French. They were supported by bass, percussion and a curious instrument that sounds like a cross between a Theremin and a jar wrapped with a wire and plucked — the latter of which, in fact, is exactly what it was.

Here’s what they saw: four middle-age men seated in customized wheelchairs, and a fifth leaning on crutches, along with their three able-bodied colleagues, shaking and grooving so energetically that you half expected them to go wheeling off the stage at any moment and racing out the door and onto wind-blown Wilshire Boulevard.

If you happened to catch the 2010 French documentary “Benda Bilili,” you’re already familiar with the band’s remarkable story. How several of its members, afflicted with polio and other physical disabilities, met in Kinshasha and organized themselves into a musical unit under the leadership of Leon “Papa Ricky” Likabu and began rehearsing in the city’s zoo, one of the few available public spaces they could find.

In addition, the French documentary team members, having stumbled on the band, introduced it to Roger Landu, a 13-year-old street kid, who eventually joined the group (he’s now a handsome young man who plays that weird one-string guitar, which he calls a satongé…

Read more: Reed Johnson, LA Times


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