Ricky, Staff Benda Bilili is the talk of the town, but what is the story behind the band?
Ricky Likabu (bandleader, vocals): "We all started out as buskers, but some band members already knew each other from when they were still in school. Because of our disabilities, it was hard to get hired by the regular orchestras and that's how we came up with the idea to form a band of our own, playing the streets and hoping to be discovered one day. We always rehearsed at the zoological gardens in Kinshasa and had been playing there for about six years when one day we were approached by two young French film makers (Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret of Belle Kinoise, red.), who wanted to film us for a documentary they were shooting ("Jupiter's Dance", 2006, red.). That chance meeting turned out to be a pivotal point in our career, because we had given them a few tracks we had recorded ,hoping they would get them to the right people, which they did. The tracks ended up at Crammed Discs here in Belgium and the rest as they say is history! The things we are living now, the release of the album and the European tour, are beyond our wildest expectations."
How did you meet Vincent Kenis?
Ricky Likabu: "After Florent and Renaud of Belle Kinoise had presented our music to Crammed Discs, the label sent Vincent to Kinshasa to record the album with us."
The album was recorded in rather peculiar circumstances (in open air at the zoological gardens in Kinshasa, red.) and even the local frogs had their role to play. One might suggest recording the next album in a studio. Aren't you afraid doing that would harm the authenticity and vibe created on your debut album?
Ricky Likabu: "I'm trying to get my hands on a piece of land in Kinshasa to construct our own studio. I don't think recording in a studio will change much, as we're still working with the same sound engineer. As a matter of fact, we're already in the process of working on some new songs."
If Papa Wemba hadn't been sent to prison (On February 17th 2003 Papa Wemba was arrested in Belgium suspected of being involved in a network that has allegedly smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Europe. He was eventually found guilty and convicted to a jail term of 30 months, red.) there probably wouldn't have been a Staff Benda Bilili, right?
Ricky Likabu: "You could well be right there, because we had formed Raka Raka, an orchestra composed entirely of disabled musicians, with Papa Wemba, and were preparing to take that project on the road when he was arrested and sent to prison. We were suddenly left to our own devices again and the orchestra quickly started to disintegrate again. That's when I decided to form Staff Benda Bilili which means: "Look beyond outward appearances!"."
Staff Benda Bilili counts several members who fell victim to the polio outbreaks of the fifties and sixties in Congo. Has the disease been pushed back now?
Ricky Likabu: "Yes, the WHO (World Health Organisation, red.) sent some of her best qualified experts to fight the disease and they started extensive vaccination campaigns and give physiotherapy to the people who suffer the disease."
Roger (Landu, red.), a former shege or street kid who was adopted by the band, plays an instrument he calls the satonge. Is that truly an invention of his or did he adapt an already existing traditional instrument?
Ricky Likabu: "He invented the satonge; it was his idea and his alone. God bestowed this talent on him and for the moment he is still the only satonge player in the world."
You also run a small business in Kinshasa. Who takes care of running that now you're abroad most of the time?
Ricky Likabu: "I started out trafficking goods back and forth between Brazzaville and Kinshasa. These days I run a stall where I sell various small items like cigarettes, biscuits or soap. Now that I'm travelling a lot, my wife has to take care of the business! (laughs)"
You just won the prestigious Womex Artist Award 2009. What does winning an award like that represent to you guys?
Ricky Likabu: "We won that award because of years of hard work! (laughs) The album hasn't just yielded this award, though, it has also allowed us to discover Europe and if you realise that no one in the band ever set foot outside Congo, that's no small feat!"