AKA: Look Beyond Appearances!, Staff Benda Bilili
Genre: Music Documentary/Cinema Verite
Year Released: 2010
Distributor: Vivendi/National Geographic
Origin: France/Democratic Republic of Congo
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Kinshasa Symphony, Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, Jupiter’s Dance, Finding Fela, Jazz Mama, Tango Ya Ba Wendo, The Punk Syndrome
-There are some aspects in recent history that affected the score and change the context of the film in hindsight. Some spoilers will be mentioned and facts about what happened after Staff Benda Bilili’s major international tours.
-Staff Benda Bilili started out in 2004 and were discovered by Crammed Disc’s Vincent Kenis. They were labelmates to other Congolese artists such as Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars. They are named after a bar, but the term Benda Bilili is Lingala for Look Beyond Appearances which plays off the fact that most of the core members are paraplegics.
-Two of the members would eventually start a band called Mbongwana Star. You should check out both bands, by the way.
-Benda Bilili! won the Golden Star at the French Press Critics Awards.
-This isn’t the first time Staff Benda Bilili has been in a documentary. They were also featured in Jupiter’s Dance which was about fellow Congolese musician Jupiter Bokondji and his band Okwess.
-The instrument that Roger Landu plays is the satonge. He made them himself with tin cans and guitar strings. The DRC has a legit music scene down there.
Much like my Felicite review, I’ve been checking out multiple artists from the Congo and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve heard. Whether it’s the experimental Konono No. 1, the gospel tunes of Alka Mbumba, or the conscious Lingala rap from Alesh, I’ve been enjoying a lot of the music. One other band I got into was Staff Benda Bilili who are an acoustic jam band from the capital city of Kinshasa (also, Africa’s 3rd most populated city after Cairo, Egypt and Lagos, Nigeria). Staff Benda Bilili had some legit tunes to them and I found out that there was a documentary about them co-distributed by National Geographic of all people. This was a bizarre choice of distributor since I’m so used to seeing their nature or historical documentaries when I was in school. It sort of makes sense since this involves geography, but I didn’t think NetGeo would be into music from another country.
Let’s take a look at this Kinois band that would eventually record their music and tour across multiple countries.
Benda Bilili! deals with the career of the band Staff Benda Bilili. Most of the founding members are older musicians who’ve suffered through polio in their lives, so they get around with wheelchairs and custom tricycles. They do band practices right in the street or at the Kinshasa Zoo where it’s quiet. This band had a habit of recruiting street children (known as Shegues in Lingala) to replace pickpocketing with playing music. They’ve helped so many children to write and perform music. One such member was the satonge prodigy Roger Landu who was encouraged by band founder Ricky Likabu who saw his talent and originality as a musician to join the band. Staff Benda Bilili busk the streets of Kinshasa, but they want to record a full-length album and tour at venues. They are discovered by Crammed Discs and try to record. There have been some troubles along the way such as poverty and property damage after a fire, but the band is persistent to rise above those troubles to make music and hopefully become successful in their craft. This tale spans from the band’s inception in 2004 all the way to 2009 when their debut album Tres Tres Fort (French for Very Very Strong in English) is released and begin to tour outside the DRC.
Seeing the origins of this band that I’ve been checking out was certainly eye-opening. I do give props to the core members for being mentors and for getting the kids to do something more constructive than petty crime and sleeping on cardboard in the street. They were a band to really root for and I wanted them to succeed in their music since they deserved better than to be in poverty. Their music is certainly great and many of the lyrics are conscious such as the situation of the shegues, poverty, or living with physical disabilities to name a few. Their creative usage of guitars, percussion, and the satonge really give them a unique sound which I certainly applaud. They also get bonus points for name-dropping Papa Wemba in one part which was sweet. I will admit that I was surprised by the cinema verite camera work. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen from National Geographic even thought it wasn’t a NatGeo original movie. I will say that was a good surprise seeing the gritty details of the band struggling and thriving. Some high-quality cameras would’ve made Benda Bilili! look quite artificial to be honest. I also admire the band’s perseverance and courage to record and play shows despite their condition. Even one of the members gets out of their wheelchair and dances around on stage at one of their later shows which shows that even they can have fun playing their songs and don’t have to be so serious all the time.
Benda Bilili! does cause me to look at appearances for better or worse if you forgive the Lingala/English wordplay. One thing that distracted me was the multiple time skips in a short period of time. I understand this was filmed over five years, but there were times where I felt that I was missing something in between. I also wasn’t a fan of not subtitling all the songs. I wanted to know what they were singing about and my Lingala is quite limited so far. One could also make a case that there’s a White Savior effect with recording and filming. It becomes apparent when some bystander in Kinshasa asks the band why some White people are filming them. I know it’s a documentary and things can happen, but a brief moment like that can really bring that subtext into the text. There’s also some historical aspects which make this documentary a bit of a downer in hindsight. Despite the band playing big shows in both the DRC and Europe, years later it was revealed that Staff Benda Bilili suffered from mismanagement and were swindled out of money. Assuming if the band didn’t break up, the only confirmed members left might be just singer/guitarist Ricky Likabu and satonge player Roger Landu. Coco Ngambali and Theo Ntsituvuidi left the band they helped founded and started Mbongwana Star full time. I know the split had nothing to do with the other members and their current band is great as well, but it’s very disheartening to know that their Cinderella story didn’t come true. Would some European buskers be exploited this much? I seriously doubt it.
This documentary involving Staff Benda Bilili was still a worthy watch. The music is certainly top-notch and Staff Benda Bilili had great intentions in getting the band off the ground. The cinema verite aspect really worked with the organic music and with the environment they were in. However, time can affect certain aspects and Benda Bilili! really isn’t that success story as one would think without any context to what happened years after their first international tour. This had the potential to be so much greater if that success wasn’t hampered with financial exploitation against these former street musicians. That was just so low on their managers’ part it’s not even funny. Benda Bilili! is still a good documentary nonetheless. Feel free to check out both Staff Benda Bilili and the off-shoot Mbongwana Star band. You won’t be disappointed even when both bands play different genres of music.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like Staff Benda Bilili’s music.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want pristine visual production.
-Great music from Staff Benda Bilili
-Strong docudrama elements
-Cinema verite camera work is on point
-A bit of a downer in hindsight with events after Benda Bilili!
-Lack of subtitled songs in different parts
-Some White Savior elements
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warning: Benda Bilili! got a PG-13 rating which I thought made sense. There’s some language in a few parts. There is drug and alcohol usage with the band drinking champagne and discussing about weed while they’re in their European tour. The poverty aspects can be rough when even children talk about how easy it is to steal and attack people.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Benda Bilili is property of Vivendi and National Geographic. The movie poster is from National Geographic and is property of Vivendi and National Geographic.