Thursday, May 14, 2009

Album Review: Staff Benda Bilili

This isn't so much an album review as an album recommendation. I never really understood the concept of album reviews. Like Elvis Costello once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Anyway, I was up in Rhinebeck, NY last weekend and strolled into Oblong Books & Music (check it out if you're up there - great selection). There was some king of African music playing on the house system, and it immediately got into my head - I asked the guy at the desk what it was and he introduced me to Staff Benda Bilili. I've been listening to the album every day since. Staff Benda Bilili is a group of Congolese street musicians. Loosely translated, the group's name means "the people who look beyond appearances". The band consists of four elder paraplegic singers/guitarists, all of whom zip through Kinshasa on these super tricked-out tricycles, to which they have been confined since their youthful bouts with polio. The rhythm section is comprised of a group of abandoned street kids known as shégués (a term which may or may not have derived from Che Guevara), all of whom have been taken under the protection of the older members. The most distinctive sound on the album comes from a satongé, a one-string lute made from a milk-powder tin, a section of fish basket frame and a single electrical wire, designed and played with virtuosity by 18 year-old Roger Landu.

Evidently, the album was recorded over a period of about three years, with most of the songs recorded out in the open, mainly in the local zoo (!!), using a dozen microphones, a MacBook laptop and a guerrilla electric cable hooked up to a deserted bar nearby. (See below)

The album is infectious and fun - highly recommended. Check out some samples via the youtubes below. The first clip is a trailer for an upcoming documentary on the band.

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