Around and within the interview of Staff Benda Bilili

staffbendabalili_PamelaJuhl20095

By Leroy Moore

Watch Leroy Moore’s three-part interview with Staff Benda Bilili.I like it when things come together!  I can’t ask for anything better.  November 1st, 2009 wrapped my family, disabled musicians, traveling and my forty-second birthday all into one big present to myself!For two years I’ve been researching disabled street musicians Staff Benda Bilili, who live near the grounds of the Kinshasa Zoo in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They released their debut album Tres Tres Forte in March 2009, and were invited to perform at the annual World Music Expo (WOMEX), which has moved to Copenhagen. Denmark. Copenhagen is also home to my sister, Pamela Julh, and her lovely two children. I had no excuse not to go and visit with my sister and nephews and at the same time meet and interview the members of Staff Benda Bilili with the Copenhagen Voice, a media outlet that my sister started.  Yes, both my sister and I are journalists for the people!WOMEX, an international festival that brings together artists from the worlds of folk, roots, ethnic and traditional music, also produces concerts, conferences and documentary films. It offers networking as an effective means of promoting music and culture of all kinds across borders. This year WOMEX announced their 2009 awardees, which was Staff Benda Bilili!!!There were many reasons why Staff Benda Bilili caught and held my attention – and a central one was seeing an all disabled band singing deeply about the issues they live with, like poverty, homelessness, disability and street kids. As a Black disabled activist, as a journalist, poet and lover of music, it just blew me away.The members of Staff Benda Bilili are: bandleader Ricky Likabu, singer/guitarist/lyricist Coco Ngambali, soprano singer Theo Nsituvuidi, singers Djunana Tanga-Suele, Zadis Mbulu Nzungu and Kabamba Kabose Kasungo, bass player Paulin ‘Cavalier’ Kiara-Maigi, drummer/singer Cubain Kabeya, percussionist Randy Buda, and finally Ricky’s adopted 17-year-old Roger Landu.  Roger created his own instrument that is called a Satonge, a one-string guitar (read more about Roger’s instrument) Although the whole band was present for the interview, Ricky and Michel (the manager) were the representatives during the interview.Staff’s songs and lyrics tell the life of poor people in the Congo.  One of the eleven songs on the CD is Tonkara, which talks about street kids who sleep on cardboard outside.   Ricky said they live & sing on the streets.  The first track of Staff’s CD is entitled Moto Moindo which translates to Black Man.  It’s a song warning Black men about what is happening in Africa, how our food, the earth, and nature is being corrupted, so Black Men should stand up, come together and take action.  On the theme of community building, Staff used to have a center in Kinsasha where they taught street kids how to build musical instruments, wheelchairs and play music, however it was bombed some years ago – by who is unclear.  Now local businesses in the Congo along with US based private organizations and individuals in the US are supporting the process of re-building the center.When I first heard this band, what made me love them was more than their music were their political views about life in the DRC as people living in poverty and as people with disabilities. I was surprised and disappointed when their manager responded to my questions about their statement of being “the real journalists of Kinshasa” with saying that there was a “misunderstanding” and “some journalist made the quote”, but the group never said that.  Strange, because it says it right there in the liner notes of their CD.  I also recognize that Staff members were very tired as well as dealing with a whole new way of living – on tour.  Denmark’s cold weather, their new wheelchairs, different clothes, having to get used to new foods, all the reality of traveling and being managed must be a challenge for them, and I’m sure they want to make sure that they can make a good living from their music.  Maybe that’s why they have become cautious about who says what, what gets out and what they want to stay in the past.  I wonder if I had met them on their turf, by the Kinshasa Zoo, if they would tell me the political explanations that my questions were fishing for?In the US, people with disabilities have held disability as civil rights issue but also as a cultural framework, where we reflect on our history, create art and music, and set forth an analysis that disability is not something you overcome.  From this, I was surprised to hear Ricky’s answer to my question of advice to poor disabled people around the world – that disability is all in the head, and that people with disabilities have to be independent.  I had to scratch my head and ask myself “Is that advice too simple, that pull-yourself-up-from-your-boot-straps kind of advice?” Hmmmm!Staff Benda Bilili said that they are looking for a US sponsor for their tour in the US.  Their manager told me it is hard to get a US sponsor as compared to Europe, where they have been touring for the last three months.  The members of Staff Benda Bilili are hoping that after the tour and the release of the documentary that they will be able to afford to buy their own house.  Noticing that Staff Benda Bilili is an all male group, my last question was if they sing with disabled women.  Coco finally spoke up, answering that yes, they do.What happens to people who go from living on streets – poor but speaking their minds about their situation – to being managed by others who have the means to bring them wealth and fame?  What happens when the people from outside your world can take you outside of your struggle and you hold back your politics – your voice – so you can make a living?  These are the questions I have after both interviews and meeting them live. If you have any thought about this, write us back.staffbendabalili_PamelaJuhl200912(Big thanks to The Copenhagen Voice, my sister, Pamela Juhl, David Grossman for pulling strings here in Copenhagen, to Florent de la Tullaye who helped me connect with Staff Benda Bilili almost two years ago – and last but certainly not least, my thanks to the members of Staff Benda Bilili for being you, for your political lyrics, and for repping people who live in poverty and who are disabled!)