by Leroy Moore/PNN & Krip Hop
I like when things come together! I canï¿½t ask for anything better. November 1st 2009 wrapped family, disabled musicians, traveling and my forty-second birthday all into one big present to myself.
After two years of researching about paraplegic street musicians, Staff Benda Bilili (Staff for short), who live around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo; I found out that they released their album and was invited to perform at the annual WOMEX Festival, World Music Expo, who have moved their world music festival to Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen, Denmark is also home to my sister, Pamela Juhl and her lovely two children. I had no excuse not to go and visit with my sister, nephews and at the same time meet and interview the members of Staff Benda Bilili with Copenhagen Voice that my sister started. Yes, both my sister and I are journalists for the people!
WOMEX, an international event that brings together professionals from the worlds of folk, roots, ethnic and traditional music and also includes concerts, conferences and documentary films. It contributes to networking as an effective means of promoting music and culture of all kinds across frontiers. This year WOMEX announced their 2009 awardees, which was Staff Benda Bilili.
After more than eight years, I finally had a chance to see my sister Pamela Juhl. As Pamelaï¿½s brother, I was so happy to create media content with her at the WOMEX Festival right in her office located in the center of Copenhagen the day before my fortieth-second birthday November 1st 2009.
CPHVoice agreed to have me on their media crew at the WOMEX Festival covering one of the most incredible bands I ever researched and wrote about - Staff Benda Bilili of the Congo. I had a chance to connect last year with the filmmaker, Florent de La Tullaye, who is shooting a documentary of the band who translated my first online interview with the group when Florent traveled to the Congo to continue shooting the film that will be out early 2010. Florent emailed me the band's replies, pictures and sent a copy of their CD almost a year ago which I am so grateful for. There are many reasons why Staff Benda Bilili caught my attention; one of them was, seeing an all disabled band really singing about real issues of their lives - like poverty, homelessness, disability and street kids ï¿½ it just blew me away as a Black disabled activist, journalist, poet and lover of music.
So, now the day after meeting and interviewing the members of Staff Benda Bilili, November 2nd (My birthday) Iï¿½m still thrilled about the opportunity I had and writing what I have experienced and the interview below. Read on.
I almost didnï¿½t make the WOMEX Festival! I was in Augsburg, Germany doing some Krip-Hop/Mcees With Disabilities, MWD business with Binki Woi when I found out that my credit card was denied after trying to buy an airplane ticket to Copenhagen, Denmark
but my sister, Pamela came to my rescue and bought me a ticket for November 1st to see Staff Benda Bilili's last CPH performance. Although I missed the award ceremony earlier that day where they received the 2009 WOMEX Artist Award. However, I was shocked when I asked my sister what did the group talk about during the award ceremony. Come to found out, the members of Staff Benda Bilili didnï¿½t say anything after winning the award ï¿½ each member kisses the Award and passed it to the next. The manager of Staff Benda Bilili, Michel Winter of Belgium, spoke to the Womex audience at Bella Center.
The night of November 1st was freezing; walking the dark cold streets of Copenhagen with the crew of CPHVoice and a friend of my sister, Line Mompremier, who is a Haitian-American living in Denmark and thank God she knew French and was down to be our translator on a last minute basis. We were heading over to Global club, where Staff Benda Bilili was about to perform and where the interview was going to take place backstage prior to their concert.
After reading other interviews online by different reporters, I noticed that there was very little written about the political views and the strong activism of the members of Staff, so I chose that to be my interviewer angle. The CPHVoice, Line and I stepped into a dark hall where two middle age people greeted us with some questions. They knew we were there for the interview thanks to CPHVoice prep for it. We were led to the stage that had a portable unstable ramp that pointed us to the backstage. Walking in, I first noticed that the group members of Staff were in regular wheelchairs not in their customize handmade tricycles that they travel the streets of Kinshasa in. You must go online and check out their handmade tricycles! Watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZUk7qy_sbA&feature=channelï¿½
The members of Staff Benda Bilili are Ricky Likabu, the bandleader, Coco Ngambali, who sings, plays the guitar and composed many of the bandï¿½s songs, Theo Nsituvuidi, the soprano singer, Roger Landu, a 17-year-old young man who was adapted by Ricky many years ago. Roger created his own instrument that is called Satonge: a one-string guitar and sings, Djunana Tanga-Suele is a singer, Zadis Mbulu Nzungu is a singer, Kabamba Kabose Kasungo also sings, Paulin ï¿½Cavalierï¿½ Kiara-Maigi plays the bass, Cubain Kabeya plays the drums and sings and finally Randy Buda plays percussion. Read more about Rogerï¿½s instrument at: http://www.myspace.com/staffbendabilili.
During the interview Ricky and Michel, the manager, answered almost all the questions. Staff Benda Bilili made a song in 2007 which successfully increased voter turnout by 70% in the Congo. This was a collaboration work with UNDP (distributors) and produced by UN Mission (Monuc) in DR Congo 2007. Although, the song was a hit before their album came out with a showering of international fame, they were denied their legal copyright ï¿½inalienable rightsï¿½ for their song and no contracts were offered to secure their rights. They pretty much got stiffed in royalty earnings and a meager one time payment of 50 dollars each per band member. (See BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6612749.stm) Even though they had a lawyer during the time, it was unclear how this issue panned out. Today, the band replied, that with so much time elapsed, since the initial legal dispute with the UN, they had decided to let go of pursuing the case and wanted to simply move forward with more positive music partnerships.
Before this interview, what really made me love Staff was more than their music, it was their political views about life in the Congo as people living in poverty and being disabled. So, when I asked them about their political views and a quote about considering themselves as the real journalist of Kinshasa I was shocked when their manager spoke up, saying, ï¿½there was a misunderstanding and some journalist made the quote that Staff Benda Bilili were the real journalists but the group never said that.ï¿½ - However, this is the quote from my online interview with them in 2008: ï¿½Staff Benda Bilili: Coco: We the SBB are like journalist; in our songs we are the true press. We talk about street life, the street kids and their dreams of happiness, we talk about corruption. The press here is a slave to the power. I consider myself as a journalist, my duty as a member of the SBB, is to say things as they are.ï¿½
I thought that was strange because if you read the insert of Staffï¿½s CD, it says it right there. I also realized that members Staff were very tired and were dealing with a whole new way of tour living in Europe. The cold weather of Denmark, their new wheelchairs, clothes, getting used to the food, traveling and being managed must be a total new way of life for them now, and I bet they want to make sure that they can live off their music could be why that they may be cautious on what gets out and what should stay in the past. I wonder if I met them on their turf of the Kinshasaï¿½s Zoo in the Congo, would Staff tell me some political stories that my questions were fishing for?
Getting into Staffï¿½s songs and their lyrics that tell the life of poor people in the Congo one of the eleven songs on the CD is the song, Tonkara, track number 8, is a song talking about street kids who sleep on cardboard outside. Ricky said, they live & sing on the streets. The first track of Staffï¿½s CD is entitled Moto Moindo that translate to Black Man. Itï¿½s a song warning Black men what is happening in Africa and how their food, the Earth, and nature is being corrupt so they, Black Men, should stand up, come together and take action. On that same theme, Staff used to have a center where they taught street kids how to build instruments, wheelchairs and play music. However, the center was completely destroyed in 2005 by a fire. Currently, local business people in the Congo, some private organizations and others from the US are in the process of building the center back up again.
Staff Benda Bilili is still looking for a US sponsor to facilitate their tour in the USA. Their music manager told me it is hard to get a US sponsor compared to Europe where they have been touring since last month (October). In the US, people with disabilities have held disabilities as a civil rights issue but in recent years, it has now become a cultural lens of insight; where we have our own history, art, music and ifestyle. Disabilities are not something you overcome, it is a part of the person. But Iï¿½m surprised when I travel abroad and even sometimes in the US of peoples perspectives of persons with disabilities. I hear a similar reply also heard by Ricky of Staff Benda Bilili, when I asked him to give some advice to Poor and disabled people around the world. The advice Ricky gave was, ï¿½disability is all in the head and you, people with disabilities, have to be independent.ï¿½ I scratched my head and thought at that point, ï¿½was that advice too simple, too pull yourself up from your boot stripes kind of advice?ï¿½ Ummmm!
The members of Staff Benda Bilili are hoping that after the tour and the release of their film documentary that they can afford to buy their own house. Noticing that Staff Benda Bilili is an all men group, of course, my last question was have they sung with disabled women? Coco, once again, answered ï¿½Yes, they do.ï¿½
After the interview was the concert. To see Black talented disabled musicians singing about their lives with my sister the day before my birthday was a dream come true. It truly doesnï¿½t get any better than this!
Thanks for the friendship of Florent da Tullays who helped me connect with Staff Benda Bilili almost a year ago and last but not least thanks to the members of Staff Benda Bilili for being you, your political lyrics and reppin' people who live in poverty and who are disabled!
Here is a link to my first interview with Staff Benda Bilili http://www.poormagazine.org/index.cfm?L1=news&category=2&story=2003
Question for the reader. What happens to people who goes from living on the streets, poor but speaking their minds about their situation to people who are managed by others who have the means to bring wealth and fame? What happens when people from outside your world can take you out of your struggle but at the same time you hold back your politics aka voice so you can make a living? These are the questions I have after reading both interviews of Staff Benda Bilili and meeting them live.