The story behind the music is pretty compelling, but the music behind the story might be even more compelling.
When you first hit the stereo's play button and hear the gentle, dirt-flecked acoustic guitar passage that opens Tres Tres Fort, the debut album from Staff Benda Bilili, it's impossible not to let your thoughts turn to issues that seem larger than music.
First, there is the extraordinary story of the musicians behind Tres Tres Fort. Most of the eight members of Staff Benda Bilili were confined to wheelchairs (or tricycles) by polio at a young age and, being poor, unable to work, and receiving little government support, were forced to live on the streets of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they were discovered several years ago by a pair of visiting French filmmakers. Then, there is the attention that the group's music has drawn to a range of important issues, from poverty and violence in Africa to public health and homelessness around the world. Finally, there is the lawsuit that was filed on behalf of the band earlier this year, claiming that the United Nations grossly underpaid the group's members for the use of a song that's been credited as massively boosting voter turn-out in several recent African elections.
It's an incredible back story filled with more drama, tragedy, and triumph than a Hollywood film script. However, what's even more incredible is that halfway through "Moto Moindo", the opening track on Tres Tres Fort, you find yourself forgetting that back story, completely hypnotized by this tremendous, instantly-accessible, and emotional music. In fact, Tres Tres Fort's 11 tracks may just be the catchiest and most powerful collection of music you're likely to hear in 2009.
Playing a mix of traditional, modern, and invented acoustic instruments, Staff Benda Bilili offer their own smorgasbord of Cuban jazz, Afro-pop, and Detroit soul. It is folk music for sure -- that is, it's music of the people. You can picture all the musicians sitting in a circle, feeding off one another, interacting with onlookers, with no two performances the same. And, actually, most of the album was indeed recorded outdoors, in the homeless enclaves near the zoo in Kinshasa, where members of Staff Benda Bilili have called home for much of their lives.
Most of the band's members sing (in several languages) and its harmonies are one of its strongest assets. These aren't the voices of classically-trained opera singers. These are the voices of everyday folks -- imperfect, temperamental, filled with a lifetime of experience.
The music on Tres Tres Fort seems so familiar and comforting, like the childhood blanket you clung to or the newspaper outside your doorstep on a lazy Sunday. But, at the same, it's overflowing with discomfiting and startling emotion -- the pain of disease, the suffering of the impoverished, and, most importantly, the joy of being able to make music through it all. Most of the songs are extended jams containing two or three sections of vocals interspersed with instrumental solo passages. Nearly all the tracks are highlights, but a few stand out among them.
"Polio" is, as expected, a touching and bittersweet track about the illness that has afflicted many of the band's members. It is anchored by a gritty, acoustic guitar riff, pulsing double bass, and the horse-trot pitter patter of hand drums. "Moziki" is a hot and fierce up tempo song, highlighted by playful soloing on a one-string, lute-like (violin-sounding) instrument that was constructed out of wire and a tin can by one of the group's members. "Sala Mosala" and "Mwana" contain haunting harmonies with call-and-response choruses that are as infectious as anything you're likely to hear this year.
The best track is the album-opening "Moto Moindo". The song begins with several slow verses, sung by only one of the group's members over sparse instrumentation containing an acoustic guitar, minimal percussion, and the aforementioned lute-like invention. Then, as the tempo gradually increases, the playing and singing becomes more and more rousing and excited, eventually reaching a fever pitch towards the song's end with all band members playing and singing in near unison.
Tres Tres Fort is essential music for fans of acoustic folk forms from across the globe. An obvious reference point is the Buena Vista Social Club collections, which match Tres Tres Fort's Latin and African folk stylings, passionate performances, and melodic, hooky songwriting with intricate harmonies. And like it is for the members of Buena Vista Social Club, music is clearly the lifeblood for Staff Benda Bilili; it is the tool these musicians use to navigate the terrain of their lives, to express, to escape from, and, ultimately, to celebrate the environment in which they have lived. And make no mistake, they are celebrating.
In the end, Tres Tres Fort reminds you that some things in life are larger than music. But also, in perhaps its greatest triumph, it convinces you -- if only for an hour -- that music has the power to conquer all.