Pioneering Congo band Benda Bilili yearn for comeback

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Congolese musicians Benda Bilili at the Palais Stephanie during the 63rd Annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Congolese musicians Benda Bilili at the Palais Stephanie during the 63rd Annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Kinshasa, Aug 23, 2021 (AFP) -Chickens strut and cluck around the courtyard of a house that resonates with the unmistakable urban African sound of a once-great rumba blues band in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A decade after their international peak, the group Staff Benda Bilili dream of returning to the stage and claiming the spoils of their success -- even if it means quarrelling with those who made them known.

In the early 2010s, these penniless Congolese musicians, many stricken by polio, living in the street and getting around in ancient wheelchairs, turned rumba upside down.

Their lives had been changed by a documentary film, "Benda Bilili!," which in 2010 wowed the Cannes Film Festival, showcasing a music as gritty and as unique as the people who played it.

Audiences became enthralled by the tales of survival that swirled around band leader Ricky Likabu, as well as Roger, Coco, Theo, Djunana and the other musicians.

The documentary opened the door to hundreds of concerts by Staff Benda Bilili in Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States. A first album, "Tres tres fort" ("Very Very Strong"), was released in 2009, another, "Bouger le monde" ("Move the World"), followed in 2012.

- 'Didn't really break up' -

The success story ended messily in 2013. The singers Coco and Theo quit the band and the end of a tour was abruptly canceled.

"We didn't really break up, there was a bit of a disagreement," Roger says today, playing down the conflict.

A former street kid with no disability, he joined the band in the early days, armed with a curious instrument made from a tin can and a piece of wire.

In 2011, Roger was living the high life between two tours.

Now aged 35 and with six children, he admits: "Life's hard."

After the band members bought homes, clothes and cars, the money from touring and recording evaporated.

About four years ago, on the advice of the head of a humanitarian NGO, they reunited. He "brought us together, made us play together," explains Theo, one of the singers who had left.

Ricky, the band leader, is 70 now and his gaze is weary, but he insists he still has the energy to get things going once more.

The musicians meet every Thursday in the rundown N'djili district of Kinshasa, in the shade of a tarpaulin stretched over the courtyard, where they compose new songs, rehearse and hang out.

A mural portrays Ricky during the glory days.

One of the new songs is about Covid-19, the pandemic and confinement. The lyrics in Lingala and the music attract neighbours, who push at the corrugated iron gate.

- 'Wipe the slate' -

A new album, "Effacer le Tableau" ("Wipe the Slate"), has been released but received little response.

"We would like to make a new documentary," to tell the world "Staff Benda Bilili is back", explains Live Mindanda, public relations officer for the group.

But the band also intends to fight to recover money that they say is owed to them from the "Benda Bilili!" film which made them famous.

Roger, Ricky and the others swear they are not at war with anyone, despite disagreement on the idea of taking legal action.

"But music is one thing, our rights are another," says Theo.

"We are going to take the producers to the Paris Commercial Court and ask for damages," says their lawyer, Mizou Bilongo Nsanda.

Among those targeted by the legal threat, co-director Renaud Barret, says he only received his due last year after nearly a decade of squabbles among the film's distributors.

He was paid around 25,000 euros ($29,000), he says.

The contract provided that Staff Benda Bilili would receive 10 percent of the proceeds.

"We will give them their share, of course," says Barret.

But a sequel to the documentary is out of the question, leaving the band grappling for a compass on the comeback trail.

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