Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili’s exuberant live shows and extraordinary story have caused a stir across the globe. To round off DaDaFest 2014, the band set the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall alight with their powerful rumba-rooted beats, overlaid with elements of old-school rhythm 'n' blues and reggae. Review by Susan Bennett
Enter stage left - a tall man swinging by the armpits on gleaming crutches, two singers and a guitarist in squat wheelchairs; two drummers and a final singer. Oozing street cred, physical presence, they explode into furious action. This was Staff Benda Bilili - a group of street musicians brought together by Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali who lived and played around the grounds of the zoo in the capital city, Kinshasa.
Staff Benda Bilili’s name translates as ‘look beyond appearances’ - and there was no hiding the sheer might of their souls on this night. Staff Benda Bilili consider themselves the real journalists of Kinshasa; their songs are about their everyday experiences and throb with the pulse of Congolese rumba, Cuban swing and we loved every short second of it and wished for much, much more.
In excess of 60 speakers were piled on and above the stage causing everything to vibrate. Wheelchairs spun in mad circles, drummers leapt off their bongos. The rhythms were alive, sashayed, jerked salsa-like from their frenzied arms, torsos and shoulders.
For the first few pieces we sat twitching too, moving as much as you can in the sedate stalls of the Liverpool Philharmonic, but then it got too much. Instantaneously everyone stood, bewitched by the beat and danced on the spot. Young, not so young, agile and not so agile, 90% of the usually polite, passive audience became magically connected, hypnotised, galvanised by the sheer power of the infectious joyful exuberance emanating from Benda Bilili. At the front a couple jived with abandon; folk in the stalls rocked, swayed and syncopated as the audience went wild and hoped the roof would stay put.
Belly deep harmonies resonated, pulsating, penetrating your very blood and bones. It set your cells quivering. Compulsive, it defied anyone to sit or stand still. ‘So! So! So!’ The entire fabric of the auditorium boomed and vibrated to the same frequencies. A high five calorie burn for all. And did the Philharmonic have a licence for dancing? Who cares!
On stage one of the singers spontaneously slid out of his wheelchair, hurling his legs in a break dance performed by the sheer bulging power of his shoulders, not once losing his hat. Grinning, clapping, stamping we urged him on.
A crescendo gathered, the pace, always fast, became frantic, surging, boiling into a sudden tsunami crash of silence. More stunning than sound, it left the audience wrong footed and frozen momentarily, silhouetted against the lights.
Then they cheered, waved wildly, the applause overwhelming. Band and audience united, whirling t-shirts across the auditorium. Together we were the performance!