Congo, where rumba meets r'n'b, Staff Benda Bilili & NBE, Mwana

In cinemas now is the film Benda Bilili, a documentary telling the extraordinary story of Staff Benda Bilili. If you haven’t been paying attention, Staff are a group of mostly polio-stricken street musicians from Kinshasha who’ve ended up making it big around the world. This is undoubtedly something to celebrate – but with all due respect to the band, it is shameful that it takes a Congolese act to be disabled to make them of such interest. In many ways, the band’s image reflects a very western perception of African music. The reality for the blinged-up stars and their adoring fans in the dancehalls of Kinshasa can often involve a very different, much glitzier story.

Back catalogues of outstanding Congolese music are largely ignored in the UK, yet few countries have produced such a rich seam of consistently innovative and socially meaningful popular music. From roughly 1960-1990, artists such as Franco and his band TPOK Jazz,Tabu Ley Rochereau and Zaiko Langa Langa were the biggest musical acts in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of musicianship, Franco’s music is up there with the Beatles, yet if you ask 99% of people in Europe or America, they won’t have heard of him.

In 2011 the music heard in the streets and bars of Kinshasa increasingly blends dancehall, hip hop and r’n’b with traditional rumba, while artists such as JB Mpiana, Ferre Gola and Koffi Olomide are as much about image, designer gear, waving wads of cash and bragging as they are about the music. The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark – although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.

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27.03.2011 | par martalanca | Congo, Staff Benda Bilili & NBE