Spotlight On: Benda Bilili

A band that calls itself “Staff Benda Bilili” uses music to stun, inspire, and beautifully blend the highs and lows of life in Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  With instruments made from garbage scraps and cardboard boxes for bedding, Staff Benda Bilili was first discovered by French film directors Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret playing on the streets in 2004. Funded to record and release their music, Staff Benda Bilili’s popularity has grown substantially throughout Europe.  Having once showcased their talent in a dilapidated old zoo, Staff Benda Bilili now performs their eclectic music in concerts across the globe, diffusing a message of hope to eager ears. Their story is of a group of men with humble beginnings who rose out of poverty and achieved fame, however, what makes Benda Bilili unforgettable is not only the culmination of their journey but the unique challenges they face along the way.
benda.JPGIn Lingala (a Bantu language spoken mostly in the Northwestern region of the DRC), Benda Bilili means “look beyond appearances,” a fitting name for a band whose first appearance may be surprising for unprepared eyes. Second only to the quality of their musical talent in significance, appearance is central to Benda Bilili’s initial struggle to be heard. Several members of the band suffer from permanent paralysis as a result of battles with childhood polio.  Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. There is no cure, but there are safe and effective vaccines. The strategy to eradicate polio is based on preventing infection by immunizing every child until transmission stops and the world is polio-free (Global Polio Eradication Initiative). While vaccines are widely administered in most areas of the world, due to their geographic location, low socioeconomic status, and particular situation within the local culture, the members of Benda Bilili were not fortunate enough to be vaccinated for polio.  Well into their adult lives, the polio makes them unattractive candidates for most job opportunities in the DRC, which eventually lands them in shelters and long, sleepless nights spent on the streets. Forced into an extenuating life circumstances, the men join together as a band to use music as an expression of their troubles and joys in being both homeless and handicapped.

film follows them through time and place, chronicling the journey of
life in the DRC. In times of sadness, increased movement becomes a
theme, as the band members either flee the city to find shelter in rural
life at home or aimlessly stroll the streets in search of something
better.  Directors Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye say of the
film, “through the wandering band’s “migration” we see the city streets
as sites of transition, an ever moving and dangerous physical
environment, full of spikes and pitfalls. Visually, it is the ultimate
expression of the political corruption of the city and its effect on the
urban landscape that surrounds them.”

It is through these movement patterns that we see the power of geography
in determining the conditions of life, and opportunity–opportunity that
often isn’t realized until years later and through extensive efforts to
re-locate all band members. The struggles of place and time behind
them, Staff Benda Bilili is finally united again to follow their dreams
to Europe.

Benda Bilili is a special film. In one regard, it is a story of
poverty-stricken strangers brought together by music, who ultimately–and
miraculously–enjoy worldwide success.  On another level, it is an
eye-opening documentation of the realities of modern day polio, a
disease completely eradicated in the United States during the 1960’s.
Today, four countries (Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan) in the
world still suffer from endemic polio, with at least fourteen
additional countries still in stages of either re-transmission
(including the DRC) or importation of the disease (Global Polio
Eradication Initiative
). For many a “forgotten disease,” Benda Bilili
brings the narrative of resilience against polio to light by putting
“the people” into the polio. The film celebrates the potential for
people to live with hope and joy through poverty, polio, and any other
odds they may face.

See Benda Bilili in select theaters near you and check out their international tour dates to watch them live!
–Julia from My Wonderful World

Leave a Reply