Congo’s Staff Benda Bilili makes U.S. debut at Three Stages

STAFF BENDA BILILI comes to Three Stages next month. The band from the Congo has earned worldwide praise. Courtesy photo
STAFF BENDA BILILI comes to Three Stages next month. The band from the Congo has earned worldwide praise. Courtesy photo

The story of the Congolese world music ensemble Staff Benda Bilili — the band’s name means “beyond appearances” — is almost beyond belief.

After a documentary about them triumphed at the Cannes Film Festival, after their performances received critical acclaim all over the European continent, after their debut recording peaked at No. 3 on the World Music Charts in Europe, after winning the WOMEX Award for Artists, Staff Benda Bilili is a band with little left to conquer.

That is, except America. Staff Benda Bilili makes their U.S. debut at Three Stages on Sept. 14. The band’s performance in Folsom marks the beginning of a lengthy American tour.

The band is lead by four vocalist/guitarists, each of whom is paraplegic — victims of polio at a young age. They perform on “spectacular customized tricycles.” The rest of the ensemble — the acoustic backing band, including a one-string lute — is made up of abandoned street kids, raised on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo. Before a French film company discovered them, Staff Benda Bilili performed in and around the zoo at Kinshasa, DR Congo. It was there that their first recording was made. T

heir performances have the stuff of legend:

“As tonight’s show proves, Staff Benda Bilili would be a remarkable band regardless of their background. Not only do they sound incredible, they exude an inscrutable cool … In the crowd, jaws drop, as well they should in the presence of such an extraordinary band”  — The Guardian, in a 5-star review.

If that weren’t enough, National Geographic has acquired North American distribution rights to their documentary, with release planned for this fall.

Staff Benda Bilili will perform in Three Stages on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $17 to $25 with premium tickets available for $29. Students bearing ID can purchase tickets for $12. Tickets are available online at threestages.net or from Three Stages Ticket Office at (916) 608-6888 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and two hours before show time. Three Stages is located on the west side of Folsom Lake College campus in Folsom, facing East Bidwell Street.

“The acclaim this band has attracted is nothing short of amazing,” noted Three Stages Executive Director Dave Pier. “It’s an honor to present their North American debut.”

“…Their first London show packed the Barbican with an audience that, six months ago, had never heard of them … seconds after they started playing, none of the back story mattered. They were, without qualification or allowance, the most exciting band to emerge from Africa in years.” — Financial Times

About Staff Benda Bilili

Kabose Kabamba Kasongo – Vocal

Cavalier Kiara Mayingi – Bass Guitar

Montana Kinunu Ntunu – Drums

Roger Landu Satonge – Luth and Vocals

Leon Rickey Likabu Makodou – Band Leader and Vocals

Coco Ngambali Yakala – Vocals and Guitar

Theophile Nsituvuidi Nzonza – Vocals and Guitar

Djunana Tanga Suele – Vocals

One of the most prominent band members is lead vocalist Rickey. Now 55, he’s the founding member of Staff Benda Bilili, and keeps the band together with his energy and ingenuity. Known as a tough guy around his neighborhood, he used to run all kinds of shady businesses, and still sells cigarettes and alcohol outside nightclubs straight from his tricycle. He also sometimes works as a mechanic and a tailor. He often sleeps on the street on tonkara (French verlan slang for cardboard) but always manages to dress very smartly and believes that a man must be suka (elegant).

Coco is 50. He sings, plays the guitar and composes many of the band’s songs. He rides the most customized motorbike of them all but never has enough money for gas so he’s always accompanied by two or three sheges (slang for “street kids”) who push it through the potholes in exchange for food. Sometimes working as a welder, Coco is very physically strong, and regularly wins arm-wrestling contests. Coco has 7 children of his own and lives on the outskirts of town but only returns home on weekends, when he’s made enough money.

Theo, the soprano singer, is a fan of James Brown and Bob Marley; in a country where cultural autarchy was once set up as a dogma, this rarity signals a relatively well-to-do background. His family lost everything with the fall of the Mobutu regime; he then had to hit the streets and became an electrician, which in Kinshasa is a semi-magical, Robin Hood-esque occupation consisting of redistributing power between neighborhoods by running long makeshift cables in the mud at night.

Roger is 17. A former shege, he was adopted by Ricky many years ago. He created his own instrument, the satonge, which consists of a guitar string tensed between the drum of a tin can and a wooden bow inserted in its base. Melodies are created by plucking the string with one hand while the other moves the bow in and out, changing the tension of the string. The members of the band noticed Roger’s uncanny musical talent and proceeded to teach him song structures and melodies. He quickly learned to play breathtaking electric guitar-like solos on this simple instrument, becoming a genuine virtuoso.

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