[6 September 2012]
There is a whole backstory to Staff Benda Bilili, the guitar-driven band from the streets of Kinshasa. It’s dramatic, it’s touching, it’s heartwarming, all of that, and it was relentlessly flogged in the promotion of the group’s first album, Très Très Fort, in 2009. That is okay with a debut record. But even a kick-ass backstory doesn’t mean much when it comes to a second album. That is why Bouger le Monde! is so exciting; it lifts Staff Benda Bilili out of the realm of “great story” to “damn good band”. It also manages to combine the most danceable grooves of the year with some of the best and most innovative guitar playing anywhere.
As for that backstory, for those who are new to the band or never heard of them before, Staff Benda Bilili was formed by polio victims, all of whom were scorned by Kinshasa’s musical community because of their disabilities. They used to play music together on the grounds of the Kinshasa Zoo, because it was the quietest place they could find. The group was rounded out by street-kid teenagers, none of whom had anywhere else to go. They were “discovered” by Vincent Kenis, head of the wonderful world music label Crammed Discs, who recorded their first record outdoors in the Kinshasa zoo.
Staff Benda Bilili trade in the long awesome tradition of Congolese rumba music. “Bouger le monde” means “Move the world,” and it’s not just a catchy title that also serves as a shouted refrain on more than one song – it’s a mission statement. These songs rumble and burble and shimmer, with a relentless forward drive. And not only is it a better, more polished record, but also a more interesting one. Some songs, like opener “Osali Mabe,” sound like classic rumba songs by Franco or Papa Wendo, with a slightly modern touch. Staff Benda Bilili retains the traditional rumba feel, even when trading lead vocals among seven different band members. Sometimes, as on “Libala Ya Mungwa,” they turn up the tempo and suddenly we are in soukous and zouk territory.
But Staff Benda Bilili is also just as influenced by rock and other genres of African music. “Mutu Esalaka (The Brains Are OK),” channels the Soul Brothers, and could easily be on any South African “Gumboots” compilation if you’re willing to overlook the occasional heavily-reverbed guitar riff. And the group’s cover of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” is a beautiful hybrid of Nuyorican salsa and West African pop. Heady stuff, anchored by one of the world’s top rhythm sections: Montana Kinunu Ntunu on drums, Randy Makana Kalambayi on percussion, and Paulin “Cavalier” Kiara-Maigi on bass.
But SBB goes even farther on Bouger le Monde!. “Kulana” is a brooding piece of soul that sounds like post-rock with a call-and-response vocal; the song’s lyrics passionately decry Kinshasa’s persuasive gang culture. “Bilanga” is a full-on rock song, punctuated by the group’s signature squealing guitar sound. As you know if you have ever seen the band play at all, this is not actually made by a guitar at all, but a single-stringed instrument constructed by group member Roger Landu out of a tin can. (It is apparently impossible to keep this homemade instrument in tune, but even this apparent imperfection works as a reminder that not every rough edge needs to be sanded down.)
There is some deep wisdom being handed around on this record. “Apandjokwetu” chronicles the humiliation and negativity the band’s members faced when they were starting out, ending with a not-so-humblebrag about how they are famous around the world. “Djambula” blames organized religion for some of the issues in DR Congo today, saying that the evil of priests is bleeding even into nature. And no matter what your current political persuasion, it is pretty hard to knock the self-determination message in “Sopeka,” in which they exhort other Kinshasans to stop begging and borrowing and just get a damn job or two.
All in all, there is very little that could improve Bouger le Monde! It is the apex of the so-called “Congotronics” movement that Crammed Discs has been pushing with Konono No. 1 and similar bands. It is innovative but still rooted in a firm roots tradition. It is socially committed but not predictably or boringly so. And it will help you shake your butt. Easily a candidate for best record of the year.