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'Benda Bilili!' documentary details the band's difficult lives

Physically handicapped, poor and homeless in Congo just a few years ago, the band has performed at top theaters and festivals throughout Europe.

October 05, 2011|By Steve Hochman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • An appreciative crowd marks Staff Benda Bilili's first international performance in eastern France.
An appreciative crowd marks Staff Benda Bilili's first international… (la Belle Kinoise, Crammed…)

"They're a bunch of rockers. They love women. They love whiskey. They love weed. They play amazing music."

Renaud Barret could be talking about the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin in their hedonistic prime. Or maybe N.W.A., when he adds that the musicians in question also had lives as "thugs" and "gangsters."

There is one other thing.

"And oh yes, they're disabled."

Indeed they are, they being Staff Benda Bilili, which hails not from London or Compton, but from the Democratic Republic of the Congo capital Kinshasa. And the disability aspect is generally the first thing most people learn about the group members, the subject of the award-winning documentary "Benda Bilili!," polio victims who get around in elaborate wheelchairs made from bicycle parts and other scavenged scrap.

Until a few years ago they were all living on the streets, sleeping on cardboard (or some times in a bare-bones shelter), rehearsing their music either on dusty, derelict corners or on the grounds of the rather sad Kinshasa Zoo.

Today, though, Staff Benda Bilili is known worldwide, its exuberant mix of Congolese rumba (echoing the golden age of such '60s and '70s stars as Franco) and tribal rhythms (echoing back many generations) having rocked top theaters and festivals throughout Europe. Not to mention the dancing. Yes, dancing.

That compelling saga is at the center of "Benda Bilili!," made by Barret and partner Florent de la Tullaye, who discovered the band on the Kinshasa streets in 2004. The film opens Friday for a stint at the Laemmle's Monica theater in Santa Monica. (The group was supposed to be on its first U.S. tour in conjunction with the film opening, including an L.A. date. But passport issues caused the trek to be canceled.)

Barret chuckles as he recalls accompanying them to Cannes in 2010 for the famed film festival, at which the documentary made its world premiere and the band played at the Director's Fortnight opening party.

"Oh my God. I'm still laughing when thinking about Cannes with Benda Bilili," he says, by phone from his Paris office, declining to go into detail.

But he adds, "They didn't get fooled by that circus."

Maybe it's just hard to shake people who've lived how they have, suggests the group's guitarist and leader, Ricky Lickabu.

"At home, the film was screened in a few neighborhoods around the city, and people weren't so much impressed with all the parts in Kinshasa," he says, via email translated by the group's French manager, Michel Winter. "But the European sequences, people were completely excited, screaming, applauding. People know we have success, some are happy for us, others don't care or are jealous. Anyway, people are too busy [trying] to survive in Kinshasa."

That unflappability, Barret says, gets to a core attribute he wants to impart about the group.

"The movie's about the power of music, the power of dignity," he says. "The movie says, 'Believe in your dream.' That's the most important part. More than the music, more than the image they are carrying. It's more the story of, I guess, all the artists in the world, people who fight for something they believe in."

That story to a large extent revolves around two figures, an odd couple whose pairing proved the real catalyst for the Benda Bilili artistic reach. First there's 60-something Lickabu, a paraplegic since a childhood bout with polio. He's the one who brought the group together in the surprisingly fertile, resourceful Kinshasa street music scene — which also produced the electrifyingly inventive Konono No. 1 and other "Congotronics" ensembles.

At the start of the film he's seen picking out a little rumba on his guitar and leading some bandmates, also polio victims, in a song that's at once philosophy and cheerleading. "I used to sleep on cardboard," they sing in French. "Bingo, I bought a mattress. It could happen to you, to him, to them. A man's life is never over. Luck shows up unannounced. It's never too late in life. We know we'll succeed some day."

With that attitude, the group weathers adversity — well, more adversity — including a fire at their shelter that destroys pretty much all their and their families' meager possessions.

The second is Roger Landu, a teen with a strange homemade instrument — fashioned from one string, a tin can and a curved stick — and a chip on his shoulder, introduced to Benda Bilili by the filmmakers. His arrival, while adding some elements of tension, provides the musical element that takes the group from interesting to fascinating. That's clear on the band's lone album, 2009's "Très Très Fort" (Very very strong), but it's nothing compared with the performances seen in the film.

But the core of the story focuses on the street life from which the music comes, where the filmmakers found themselves often the target of tension too.

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