Staff Benda Bilili rocketed to fame a few years ago on the back of an incredible story and their take on Congolese rumba music from the 1970s and 1980s. Their debut album, Tres Tres Fort (Crammed, Belgium) has so far sold more than 150,000 copies, topping the European Broadcast Union's World Music Charts for several months and a documentary on the band played at mainstream cinemas on general release.
The band's members are drawn from a group of paraplegic street musicians based around the zoo in Kinshasa and their stated aim was to become Africa's most successful paraplegic band, which they have achieved and then some. Staff Benda are already firm fixtures on the festival circuit.
With such a successful debut, the band's second album was eagerly anticipated. Bouger Le Monde (Move The World) (Crammed, Belgium) was released this past August and does not disappoint. This is the band's first studio album and the sound is indeed more polished and refined, but the unmistakable rumba lilt is still there, driving the music.
The album kicks off with a typical dance-floor filling rumba Congolais, Osali Mabe, led by intertwining soukous guitars and Roger Landu's unique homemade one-string instrument, the satonge. The guitar-driven sound complements the delightful vocal harmonies, always a feature of great Congolese music, in a song that set the tone for the entire album.
Lead vocalist Ricky Likabu and soaring tenor Theo Nzonza feature in this song and throughout the album, which had me thinking back to the golden era of Franco and rumba Congolais.
But what makes this a contemporary take on rumba are the outside influences and distinctive touches which crop up on different songs. Djambala, for instance, has a New Orleans bluesy feel to it that is reminiscent of Dr John, while the chanson-inspired Ne Me Quitte Pas is a great pop song. The guitar sound that forms the musical backdrop to most songs is unusual, too, as it includes the incredible virtuosity of Landu's playing; it's uncanny how similar he sounds to Jimi Hendrix's Stratocaster on Kuluna/Gangs and he gets even more psychedelic on the rumba-rocker Bilanga _ all on just one string!
The band doesn't pull any punches when it comes to writing about the world they live in. Self-reliance features in many song (as in Osali Mabe: "My handicap doesn't stop me from being clever"), as do contemporary issues such as gangs and politicians.
Vincent Kenis, the producer of the rootsier Congotronics series, has created a smoother, more defined studio sound but without compromising the band's lilting rumba groove. I found myself smiling and tapping my feet all the way through this uplifting, groove-laden album. Let's hope that an enlightened promoter will bring this funky band to Thailand. Highly recommended. You can find out more about the band at: www.staffbendabilili.com or search YouTube for clips.
Renowned deejay Frank Gossner, of Voodoo Funk fame, was in town last Thursday for a gig at Cosmic Cafe as the headlining act for the ever-popular Isan Dancehall series run by local deejay Maft Sai and his Zudrangma Records posse. Even for a mid-week gig, the show was well-attended. DJ Masa and then DJ Maft Sai warmed up the crowd. Gossner told me that he was mightily impressed with some of the molam tracks Maft played and was becoming a firm fan of Waipod Phetsupan. Not that he played any Asian music in his funky set, which was packed with Afro-funk and Afrobeat grooves, and it was a real treat to listen to his set.
Although based in New York, Gossner is about to move to Costa Rica. He said that he would still be focused on African music and would continue to perform wherever the beat takes him. You can catch Frank on the video documentary Take Me Away Fast, which was shown a week before his Bangkok gig at Opposite on Sukhumvit 51. The film is worth seeing, not only for Frank's tireless efforts to find good quality vinyl in West and Central Africa but also for the clips of African musicians talking about the golden era of the 1960s and 1970s.
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- Writer: John Clewley