Sunday, August 23, 2009

Put forward what is hidden - Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili's first and so far only album, Très Très Fort, draws you into it with its first few bars; and its soft, seductive, distinctive African beat tells you in an instant that you are in for that unique unbridled celebration of life that can only ever be expressed by people who have experienced untold adversity and hardship.

Within a couple of seconds you hear a strange, piercing, exotic plucked music - otherwordly and yet clearly from the hand of someone who knows their way around this music: its spirit every bit as much as its sounds.

Welcome to the streets of Congo, and the lives and art of a group of paraplegic, homeless musicians, who play makeshift, homemade instruments while they sit on makeshift, homemade wheelchairs. That strange exotic instrument is in fact a single string, stretched between a tin can and piece of bent, flexible wood. It is plucked by a seventeen year old homeless boy who manipulates the pitch by moving the wood backwards and forwards, changing the string's tension. He does it superbly. The last time I was that bowled over by someone plucking strings was when I first heard Jimi Hendrix. The two are nothing alike, of course, other than in the utter sincerity and earnestness with which they play.

Theinstruments might be makeshift, but the music most definitely is not. It is spontaneous, full of vitality and life. Its disparate rhythms and melodies and tones have that amazing mix of old and new, a feeling of being organic, and of lasting forever. You could listen to it in a century, and it would still sound new. Its bits and pieces - different things coming at you from every direction - all blend together in a way that tells you that these are a people who have an enormous sense of community and cohesion - not just with each other, but with the very streets on which they live, even with the cardboard on which they sleep, as the song "Tonkara" tells us.

I don't know a lot of African music, but the characteristic earthiness of its beats and sounds could surely not sound more in place than it does here. The name of the band, Staff Banda Bilili, means "put forward what is hidden" - and this album certainly does that. It's music that makes you smile because, quite simply, it's music that is itself so full of joy.

But that's not to say that these are happy songs. The words are often anything but. "Black man, get up, stand up, Africa is being destroyed" says the opening song. The second song urges parents to get their children vaccinated against polio - far from just a tokenistic health warning in this place. This album is not about hiding from life's adversities - how could these people escape them anyway? - but it is rather about allowing the human spirit to shine through those adversities, and its light is all the brighter because of that.

This album was recorded in the open, on the streets on which it was born. Listen to the sounds of hands beating on drums, of voices singing with an openess and an honesty that you just don't create in a recording studio. And listen to the sound of that amazing one-stringed lute ... haunting, exotic and exhuberant all at once. Listen to all of this, really listen to it, and I defy you not to think of your life just a little differently afterwards.

Très Très Fort means "Very, very loud", which is exactly how this unique and extraordinary celebration of life and diversity should be played.

Another great 3PBS discovery!

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