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.
In 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.