Tuesday 5 April 2011

Benda Bilili!

The audience in the Courtyard's studio theatre was enthralled by the sheer courage and tenacity of the musicians featured in the French documentary Benda Bilili. The film crew followed Staff Benda Bilili over a period of years - helping them to record an album and eventually filming them on their European tour. Most of the musicians were disabled - several as a result of childhood polio - all were living either in a housing shelter or on sheets of cardboard on the street. The music they wrote and performed had us all tapping our feet and smiling - from their early rehearsals in the sparsely populated Zoological gardens to the music festivals on their European tour.

The lyrics of their songs were based on the reality of their lives. A plea for mothers to have their babies vaccinated against polio, a hope that one day the singer's luck will change and he will be able to buy a mattress.

The French documentary focussed on two interesting characters. Papa Ricky is the leader and protector of the group. He is lead singer and philosopher commenting when there is a devastating fire in the housing shelter "c'est la vie". Roger is an adolescent when he is introduced into the band. He produces beautiful sounds from a homemade instrument made from an empty tin, a piece of curved wood and a taut wire. At the start of the documentary the younger Roger has a hauntingly tragic expression in his eyes, but by the time he returns to the band as a young man he has the confidence of a true musician.

The film showed a way of life about which most of us in the West are entirely ignorant. Kinshasa a chaotic city peopled by numbers of people who scrape a living and exist on the edge of starvation, but who exhibit such joy and such wisdom. "Why does everybody want to go to Europe" wonders a ten year old boy to his friend "People risk death to go there".

The Borderlines audience, including my immediate neighbours, responded to the life enhancing qualities of Benda Belili and I believe we all came out feeling a little humbled in the face of such extraordinary courage.

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