It was that moment when you have to decide where you’re going to stand, and this was one concert that absolutely demanded a clear sightline. Determined not to get stuck behind the guy in the hat, sunglasses and headphones (all of which added a good 10cm to the diameter of his head), I fidgeted around a bit. Why the fuss, my companion asked? They’re quite low down, I explained.
As it turned out, I probably could have stood on my head and still got a decent view, such were the energetic moves being pulled both in the crowd and on the stage. Kinshasa’s Staff Benda Bilili set out to be ‘the best handicapped band in Africa’; four of the group’s members are in wheelchairs, with a fifth on crutches, due to childhood polio. In the sweaty cavern of the Hackney Empire, they were simply a great band, working their audience into a frenzy with their take on Congolese rumba and funk.
Wearing a glittery fedora and clutching what looked like an electrified baked-bean tin, 19-year-old singer and future band-leader Roger Landu started off nervously, but soon came into his own, with extraordinary solos on both vocals and the tin, an instrument called the ‘satonge’ which he invented himself. Across the stage, his senior band mates were completely at home, navigating their intricate riffs with ease, belting out beautifully harmonised call-and-response vocals and throwing themselves – at times quite literally – into the performance with infectious gusto.
Highlights included the frenetic Moziki, and the full-on funk of Je t’aime, complete with slightly risqué dance moves accompanying grunts of ‘sex-ah machine-ah’ – a tribute to James Brown, who played Kinshasa in 1974. After a standing ovation and several encores, the band came to the refrain ‘ne me quittez pas’ – ‘don’t leave me’. By the end of the night, we didn’t want them to leave.
Staff Benda Bilili are currently touring in Europe, with a series of shows scheduled for Japan in the autumn.
A documentary film about the band, Benda Bilili!, premièred at Cannes this year, UK cinema release tbc.