Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Album Review : Tres Tres Fort - Staff Benda Bilili****

You know, sometimes I get accused of being inversely elitist about music, that I might even deliberately search out weird and obscure musical acts so that I can brag about being a fan of something new, or small, or almost totally unheard of.

Nothing could be further from the truth I assure you, my Scrobbler charts shows that I listen to a lot of music by well known bands (The Clash, The Beatles, Bob Marley), but as a bloke who grew up listening to John Peel, my musical catchment area has always been rather wide.

Staff Benda Bilili then are a group of paraplegic, customised wheelchair riding, homeless musicians who live close to the city zoo in Kinshasa, Congo they recorded their debut album outdoors on a laptop computer using "borrowed" electricity and their lute player has an instrument that he invented and built himself from scrap metal and old electrical wiring. There you go you see, nothing obscure about that.

The name of the band means "look beyond appearances". Most of singing on the album is in Lingala I believe, with perhaps a smattering of French, I might well be mistaken on both counts there so correct me rather than flaming if you know better. Obviously then I don't understand a word of what is being said but I gather from interviews that the band tackle social issues that affect themselves and their friends living in poverty on the streets of Kinshasa. Ricky Lickabu, singer-guitarist and band leader, says that although their songs touch on the state of education, medicine and poverty, he wants the band's music to be about teaching and healing, bringing the Congolese peoples together in unity and making people in their situation feel that they have something to live.

Ok, so that's all terribly worthy of support by the sort of Guardian reading, middle income left wingers that you'd expect to be interested in that sort of thing, yet, the music of Staff Benda Bilili is really good.

In style, it bears a similarity to Fela Kuti (and I am aware that my knowledge of the music of modern Africa is sadly lacking), it is upbeat, light and bouncy, driven along by hand beaten drums, plucked guitars, wonderful voices and bursts of 17 year old Roger Landu's satonge solos, that would be the scrapyard challenge lute which is charming in some places but slightly too highly pitched and prominent in others.

Tres Tres Fort does not of course suffer from over production, if you listen to the album and compare the music to the band playing live, and there are some videos to see on YouTube, the style is very similar. The whole album has a wonderfully live feel to it, with it's layered but un-chorused voices, it hasn't been remastered and polished to death, there are rough edges but everything adds to the feel rather than detracting from it.

It becomes increasingly rare today to find music which really transports you to somewhere else, a lot of popular music can only transport you to the interior of a digital mixing desk where a tiny amount of talent can be made to stretch an awfully long way, but Staff Benda Bilili are the very reverse of this, a wealth of natural talent being expressed under difficult circumstances, and expressed in a beautiful and lifting manner.


  1. You like your music, that is for sure. Have a look at this, the dude with the blonde / yellow mowthingy is Ben Stiles, I used to house share with him!


    My life has never been quite the same!

  2. I'm very glad that the album sounds natural to your ears, because that was the idea. This doesn't mean it hasn't been "remastered and polished to death": it's impossible to record in multitrack outdoors without having to fight traffic rumble, wind noises, crackling due to dirty electricity etc... Also, I enjoy doing very "unnatural" things to the tracks which in the end make them sound more natural than if they were left untouched... In fact, I love tweaking so much that I took my "mixing studio" (a laptop) to the mastering studio and finalized the mixes there.

  3. Agreed, terrific album.