Tuesday, 20 July 2010
STAFF BENDA BILILI - Hackney Empire, Review - 20th July 2010
Some of you may remember me talking about STAFF BENDA BILILI previously, after I saw the documentary about them which will be in some form of cinematic release later this year, beginning in France. Tonight, I got to see them perform live at the Hackney Empire, London. When you know about the band's backstory, it makes evenings such as this especially poignant. It's hard enough for anyone anywhere to achieve anything -- so the fact these guys went from living on cardboard boxes in the Congo, to playing international music festivals is truly remarkable.
"Can you define what is handicap? Everybody's got a 'handicap' of his own. We don't consider ourselves as disabled. We are musicians first, all of us are gifted craftsmen, we do all types of jobs to survive. We got many children and do our best to feed them. We don't care what people think of us. The only judgement is on stage, and we will rock the place."
But they don't want your pity. They don't want you thinking "aww, good for you.." in a condescending way-- although I'm sure many do. In fact, I felt a bit uncomfortable just before the concert was starting. It seemed to me that the audience was predominantly white and middle class, and it kind of bothered me in ways I can't fully explain. I had this feeling that here are this incredibly powerful, deep and truthful band --- and the audience is a bunch of do-goody-wanna-check-out-the-cool-disabled-African-band trendy white students. Whether I thought this about the audience, or about myself, I don't know (not that I'm a student). But the audience was not diverse-- I don't totally know what my point is..
..And I guess that point doesn't matter too much, because as the concert began, all of those things faded away. Whether you were black or white or able-bodied or disabled; you were taken in by the magnificent energy and magnetism of the band. A near capacity Hackney Empire where everyone was dancing. Unless you're painfully self-conscious like I am prone to be, in which case, you subtly tap your feet but only when you're certain no-one will notice.
But this is the magic of the music. Eventually, they GOT me. They took me from one mental state to somewhere entirely different. I went from being me, full of commentary and thoughts and judgements and ideas; into instead being this body that heard, felt and became one with the music on stage. Finally, I was there. There was a woman not far from me who was dancing from the very beginning-- completely swept away by the music, she can seemingly just switch off and switch in. I wish I were as lucky as she. But like I wrote in my recent blog about writing, it's rare that I can be completely taken in by someone's art, especially as I get older (for reasons we'll investigate another time).
The point I was getting to is that eventually I was completely in the moment with the music.. it was all that mattered. I was full of joy. And it's at those rare, almost religious moments when you truly realize the power of what you're witnessing. It's a strange kind of oneness (Jesus, I used the word oneness. Shoot me), when musicians, the audience, the floor, the roof, the insects in the corner; when they all meld into one and become an experience, this thing you are all feeling together. And that is the power of music. Of art. Of films. Of all this stuff. This is exactly why we do it.
'Benda Bilili' means "look beyond appearances." And that is exactly what the Staff Benda Bilili concert experience makes you do. Regardless of your thoughts on race, disability, economics, privilege, etc--- you need to look beyond them, that's where the truth lies. Whether you're an idiot blogger judging a concert audience, whether you're a guy making crude jokes about disabled people or someone with a prejudice against black people, looking beyond it will do you a lot of good. The messages tonight were loud and clear. When a band member jumped out of his wheelchair and began to shake his body around and dance, without the ability to stand, there were gasps from the audience.. gasps that mean 'I didn't expect that.' It's a gasp no able-bodied person would ever have to hear if they started dancing.. but that's the point, nobody knows what anyone is capable of. If we think we know, we're wrong.
The band members always knew they were destined for great things. When you see 'Benda Bilili!,' the documentary about them - you see their confidence and attitude-- they knew even then, before anyone gave a shit, that their music was important, that they were destined to be the most famous disabled musicians, if not the most famous musicians, period, in the world. And it might be best not to rule out that happening.
The stand out star of the band is, without doubt, the young Roger Landu - who plays an instrument which he invented, aged only 12, before he knew any of the band. He calls it the Satonge; and he invented it so that he had something to play on the street, to make money, so that he could feed himself and his family (It's made of an old tin can, a piece of wood, and a string.) The sound of his instrument is unmistakable. He's incredible. And he's also the future leader of the band. The current leader of the band Ricky Likabu, is very aware of his and his bandmate's ages-- they are living way beyond the life expectancy of Congolese men - and their wish is for the boy prodigy to carry on the band long after they're gone.
We can only hope those days are a long way away. Staff Benda Bilili are one of the most exciting, compelling and inspirational bands ever to grace the planet. They have beaten the odds that life and society had stacked against them -- and they inspire you to want to do the same. Unless you're familiar with the language, you won't know what they're singing about. At least not consciously. But the energy, emotion and pure HEART that permeates everything they do on the stage will leave it's mark on you.