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BBC – Music – Review of Staff Benda Bilili

Written by on October 23, 2020

That Staff Benda Bilili are releasing their second album during the Paralympics is certainly apt, as the tale of how these Congolese paraplegic musicians have found fame far beyond their homeland is as inspiring as that of any Paralympian.

But then, despite the poverty of their background, Staff Benda Bilili have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. They were discovered busking in Kinshasa by Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, who recorded their 2009 debut album Très Très Fort in the local zoo; something documented in the  film Benda Bilili!, which propelled Très Très Fort to worldwide sales of over 150,000 copies and its creators to the international stage.

However, just like the Paralympians’ athletic feats, Staff Benda Bilili – whose name translates as “look beyond appearances” – deserve to be recognised more for their musical merits than backstories. And Bouger Le Monde! is again an utterly unique and eclectic stew of African rumba and other influences from rock to reggae, even more accomplished and energising than its predecessor.

Recording in a proper studio this time around has given Staff Benda Bilili a richer sound, with the bass full and funky on Tangu I Feuni. When Roger Landu plays his incredible psychedelic qatongé solo on Kuluna you’d swear it was Hendrix strafing his Stratocaster rather than a man with an instrument he’d fashioned from tin cans and string.

Indeed, although the rollicking percussion and Congolese voices throughout never really let you forget which continent this comes from, there are times Bouger Le Monde sounds almost as American as it does African. The intricate guitar patterns of Sopeka suggest a shared bloodline between rumba and bluegrass, and Djambula could be Dr. John’s blues relocated from the Mississippi to the Congo.

Just like the original blues artists and their African ancestors, Staff Benda Bilili sing songs of strife and redemption. Yet when the mixture of French and various Congolese languages breaks into sing-along “la la la”s on Ne Me Quitte Pas it becomes as pure a life-affirming rush as the best pop music in any language.

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