Godfathers of Street Kids

root - Posted on 15 October 2008

Leroy/Krip-Hop Interviews Staff Benda Bilili of the Congo and their Filmmakers Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye

by Leroy Moore/PNN

Staff Benda Bilili is a band of six disabled musicians from the Congo. In 2004, French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye began filming the band to create a documentary about their music and struggle. Leroy Moore interviewed the filmmakers and two of the band’s creators about music, the upcoming film and life in the Congo for disabled musicians and artists.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Where are you from and where do you do most of your work?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: We live in Paris and used to work as photographers and graphic designers. We discovered Kinshasa in 2003 and decided to work there, shooting movies and producing bands

Leroy\Krip-Hop: I found the story about Staff Benda Bilili on the internet. They are disabled musicians who live on the streets of Kinshasa. Please tell us more about this group and their message.

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: Staff Benda Bilili is an orchestra of six disabled (all have polio) musicians and two street kids, who they fostered years ago and taught music. SBB is a true musical oddity, whose musical style lays somewhere between James Brown and Buena Vista Social club. The lyrics of their songs are like advice they give to all the people who live in the streets like them. They are like the godfathers of all the street kids and very respected personalities of the ghetto. The thousands of [disabled] of Kinshasa have created an underground syndicate called Platform: Man like you and the SBB are like their spokesmen…Yet their message hasn't got anything to do with their [disabilities] as they don't consider themselves as [disabled]. They're married, have kids and apart from music they're gifted electricians, sewers and hairdressers… Their message to the people is all about survival… How can one survive in such a city, if I can do it [living with a disability] so can you.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How did the band’s members meet each other?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullay: The two leaders Ricky and Coco met in a care center for handicapped 30 years ago and started to jam together. They met the other members in the streets and little by little they created the orchestra. They also played in Papa Wemba's Raka-Raka in the late 80's. When the country exploded in, the late 90's they managed to stay united and always playing music. They met the street kid Roger (who is now their soloist) at The Kinshasa central market in 2004 and decided to adopt him although at that time they were themselves living in the street.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How is life for people with disabilities in the Congo?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: Hellish life for an occidental person (disabled or not)… There is no transportation, no proper roads, no health care system, no schooling system, no electricity, no state policy, nothing. The [disabled], like the valid people, are completely abandoned. Quite logically, they are not considered handicapped because like everybody else they must struggle [to figure] things out.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How did you meet the group?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: We met them in 2004 while shooting our first movie in Congo Jupiter's dance

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How long has the group been together?

Staff Benda Bilili: As Staff Benda Bilili about 10 years

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Can each member say something about his or her mission and life?

Staff Benda Bilili: Coco: We the SBB are like journalist; in our songs we are the true press. We talk about street life, the street kids and their dreams of happiness, we talk about corruption. The press here is a slave to the power. I consider myself as a journalist…[it’s] my duty as a member of the SBB, to say things as they are. Ricky: The SBB has a vocation to give shelter to any gifted people from the street, handicapped or not. If the album is a success, we would build an art center of our own, to teach music and other things to the street kids. If we don't do anything for them, it's like a time bomb. That's a major goal in my life. I have to share my experience, because I'm great, and God made me a rock star.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Tell us about the UN of Africa and their relationship with the group?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: The UN hired the group to sing a song to incite people to register for the 2006 election. (the first democratic election in thirty years) The SBB did the song Let's vote and were paid $300 for the whole process. In the end the song was on each radio station [and] each TV channel at least ten times a day and the group got nothing. In the meantime the local ndombolo star who sang praises for candidates got $50,000… That's about it.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: I read that you got only a little bit of money from the UN is there any more news on this?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: The situation hasn't changed so far. The SBB was infuriated and sued the UN for $100,000… Imagine that.
It's like David against Goliath. But hey who knows?

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Tell us about the movie. What is the title? Why and what are you trying to display to the world?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye:
The story of this band we are following since 2004 had to be told somehow. Benda Bilili in Lingala means beyond appearances. It's a modern tale of courage and dignity; a universal story that touches everyone, it's about people who never give up.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: You say the group fights for the rights of disabled homeless people. How do they do this?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: With the release of the film and the album, the SBB are going to start something of their own (a center for the disabled). We are not into charity business; we are dealing with professional musicians (the SBB) that's all. But the movie is going to have a great impact and we hope it will help the [cause].

Leroy\Krip-Hop: I have read that you took in two kids. Are there a lot of street kids and what are your goals for the two kids and other street kids in Kinshasa?

Staff Benda Bilili: There are thousands and thousands of them…Some are [kicked out of] homes because they're accused of being witches by fake reverends…many come to Kinshasa because they flee war in the east of Congo. The government arrests them, deports them sometimes kills them. The power is made of utterly incompetent people who'd rather cure the effects than seek the causes of such situations. All those kids are like a time bomb. They are all the SBB’s children.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Tell us about how your government is or is not dealing with poverty.

Staff Benda Bilili: The government is a bunch of avid, cynical puppets in the hand of the western nations. You can be corrupted but how can you starve your own people ???

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How would you describe your music?

Staff Benda Bilili: Rumba-blues… tribal-salsa

Leroy\Krip-Hop: You make your own instruments, tell us about them.

Staff Benda Bilili: Home made guitars plus you have The Sdoloiste Roger who plays with a single stringed guitar of his own. It's made of a can of milk a wooden stick and a metal string, it sounds amazing check that on www.myspace.com/staffbendabilili

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Now you are planning to buy a house with your kids. How and when will this happen?

Staff Benda Bilili: If the album sells…

Leroy\Krip-Hop: As a filmmaker, why did you choose to make a film about Staff Benda Bilili?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: We didn't choose it. It was an emergency to us, for the beauty and the poetry of it and plus to help those people. But if they wouldn't have been brilliant musicians we wouldn't have done anything.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: You've been filming for seven years, what were the ups and downs in those years?

Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye: The group lost everything in a fire that ravaged their center in 2005 so they had to sleep outside with their families. Some musicians disappeared or died… Normal everyday life in Kinshasa

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Did you as a group felt comfortable being filmed?

Staff Benda Bilili: We felt we could pass our message to the world. With that film our kids will be proud and maybe wealthy

Leroy\Krip-Hop: Tells how media there treats people in poverty and people with disabilities.

Staff Benda Bilili: In Congo the media equals the government. It's treated in a highly self-satisfied tone. Like they give a poor guy a bag of peanuts [just before the election] and make a whole ceremony about it.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: You said that Staff would be going on tour. Will this be the first time that the group will be traveling?

Staff Benda Bilili\Florent de La Tullaye: Yes in 2009; it's going to be the first time.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: As a person living in America I'm used to seeing small shiny wheelchairs. On your myspace page I saw your video and I noticed your wheelchairs are big. How do you get your wheelchairs?

Staff Benda Bilili: We do it ourselves, it's all recycled materials we, the SBB know how to craft those chairs, we can teach you one day, when we come to America.

Leroy\Krip-Hop: How can we, as Americans support your work?

Staff Benda Bilili: We'd love to do a concert in America… we need to be connected to some associations [for the disabled] down there


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