Surging from the street of The Congo, the sound and spirit of Banda Bilili and his band is wonderfully captured by French fimmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye. It’s hard to imagine a more volcanic pool of artistic expression – homeless and stricken with polio related disabilities, songs that dream of mattresses take on a grappling anguish. Not that these musicians’ exuberant faces seem to let the world keep them down.
When the band team up with teenager Roger, who has made his own one-stringed instrument using a tin can and a stick, they set about recording an album and aim to take their music to the world. It’s impossible not to get completely swept up in their heartbreaking story, charged by their music and smile incessantly at their observations of European culture. Dazed Digital caught up with the directors to speak about making the film, the magic of Kinshasa and surreptitiously discovering musicians in brothels.
Dazed Digital: How did you come across Benda Bilili?
Renaud Barret: We walking the streets at night with our cameras and suddenly we were dragged by this amazing sound – which was Benda Bilili begging for money in front of a restaurant. It was a mix between blues, soul music; very tribal but also very melancholic. We stayed with them till the early morning listening to their music and smoking pot. They were like fifty at the time, and in Kinshasa that’s like dead.
DD: What drew you to Kinshasa in the first place?
Renaud Barret: We felt very bored in Europe – we were very bad at organisation and methodology. My girlfriend was over there working so I came over to take some pictures. I immediately met a musician who told me, ‘OK, leave your air conditioned hotel and come with me, I’ll show you the ghetto.’ I immediately had a crush on the city and gave a call to Florent, at the time he was working in Siberia shooting with some shamans. Seeing so many artists in Kinshasa in complete disorganisation just made sense.
DD: Was it a long process to get people to come round to his music?
Renaud Barret: It’s been a burden man. Since 2009 no one gave shit about it, it was like we were all alone. We had this band, we might have a film, but no one gave a shit. They just thought, ‘Oh, Africa, handicapped, music, forget about it, you won’t make anything with that.’ It was like a scarecrow. So we kept on going on and on and on. Kinshasa was like a dream because we were creating, the worst part was always in Europe where we were back financing, but it was impossible.
DD: How did you discover Roger – the guy with the one-string instrument?
Renaud Barret: He was begging for money, really surviving on his instrument playing this Papa Wemba stuff. Then we lost him. We wanted to do something for him but disappeared for a whole year. We found him again playing in this crack house playing to dancing prostitutes, it was so poetical that he came back like that. He didn’t come back to see us, it was just by chance.
DD: Was he excited about playing with the band?
Renaud Barret: He was actually quite scared of them because handicapped people in Central Africa have got a bad image to do with witchcraft; it’s like a curse. It’s the way of thinking: nothing happens by accident. You don’t die by accident, you die because somebody has done something wrong. If you’re born blind, it’s always something to do with the spirits or what you’re relatives have done wrong. And you can’t fight that; it’s another culture.
DD: Are you still based in Kinshasa?
Renaud Barret: Yes, we’re still in Kinshasa. Fuck Paris, man, fuck London, it’s all in Kinshasa. We live there, we know a lot of bands and we have a studio now and many bands we want to produce. It’s not over, we’ve got many bands coming, many movies, we’re trying to create our own film and music language. It’s a pagan city with pagan artists. It’s all mixed in the big city. It’s 400 tribes with 400 different languages and 4000 rhythms mixed, plus the urban spin. And all this created a special sound.