In 2009, four paraplegic singer/guitarists, assisted by a  ‘hype man’ on crutches who whipped the crowd into a frenzy and backed by an all-acoustic rhythm section pounding out tight grooves, took the world by storm.

Congo’s music wunderkids, Staff Benda Bilili became an unstoppable force. They were a group of street musicians who’s polio disability did not stop their passion for music. They lived and played around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo, they made music of astonishing power and beauty. Inevitably, the band’s mesmerising rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals and extraordinary tin-can guitar solos, dazzled audiences and media the world over, on record, on stage and on the big screen.

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The rise

Staff Benda Bilili ripped through Europe, spreading the word about debut album ‘Très Très Fort’ with one of the most talked-about tours of 2009. The continent’s media responded in a chorus of praise, with top TV shows (including BBC Newsnight), broadsheet newspapers and world-renowned radios lavishing the band and their album with attention and end-of-year plaudits.

“Benda Bilili”, a documentary film on the band shot over several years by French filmmakers Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, premiered at the prestigious “Director’s Fortnight” event at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The band proved to be one of the sensations of the festival, with reviews describing them as “The Kinshasa social club” (The Times), and the film as “a rousing depiction of unimaginable poverty and transcendent resolve” (Hollywood Reporter) as well as “a remarkable documentary and an amazing music film” (Telegraph). The film went on to be released across Europe and the US, garnered a significant success, and contributed to making Staff Benda Bilili one of the most emblematic African bands around the world.

They even gained worldwide recognition including the 2009 WOMEX artist of the year award and voted as “Best Group” in the Songlines Music Awards 2010 and extensively in Europe, Japan and Australia, playing many of the largest festivals incl. Glastonbury, WOMAD, Roskilde among numerous others.

Their songs were hailed as masterpieces that documented everyday life in Kinshasa, emblematic of the meaning of their band name:  “look beyond appearances” – literally: “put forward what is hidden”.

Then it all came crashing down barely three years after their debut in Europe.

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The fall

Last year, The Guardian’s Andy Morgan* did some digging around and uncovered several reasons for why this band, with such great potential, fell apart, like so many other African bands who’ve worked their way onto the international spotlight, only to be burnt by the harsh realities of the music business.

Morgan believes that the real problems appear to have coincided with the arrival of Maurice Ilunga, a Congolese local government administrator living in Paris. At the invitation of the group’s leader Ricky Likabu, Ilunga set up an NGO called Staff Benda Bilili in 2010 to funnel some of the band’s earnings into good causes in Kinshasa. The idea was met with all-round approval. “It was good to have someone who could advise them in their own language,” says Florent de la Tullaye, the co-director of the Benda Bilili film. “And the NGO was very important. Ricky had been talking about it for a long time. It was close to his heart.”

According to his investigation, as the pace of success accelerated, Likabu became increasingly suspicious that the band were not being paid their dues. In some ways, suspicion was inevitable. “The bald truth is that the western music industry makes little or no sense to the neophyte, especially one from a completely different culture who speaks a different language. How do you explain that if a venue pays a handsome fee to book a band such as Staff Benda Bilili, less than half of it will find its way in the pockets of the musicians? The rest is eaten up by transport costs, per diems, manager’s percentage, agent’s percentage, insurance, tax, crew salaries and so on. Needs must. The manager has to live. The agent has to live. The crew have to live. The musicians have to be transported, accommodated, fed. The west “eats” money in a way that Africa doesn’t.”

“The lightning success of the band– the WOMEX Award, the Cannes Festival [where the award-winning documentary Benda Bilili became an unexpected hit in 2010], the standing ovations, all that – made some of the members think that everything would flow from the source, that the money would come in torrents, a notion fuelled by the greed of people who know nothing about the business but are always quick to proffer ‘good advice’“, wrote their former manager Michel Winter after throwing in the towel himself.

While Winter’s statements do seem a tad condescending, they might explain how the probable naivete of Staff Benda Bilili led to their demise.

“How how to explain that nobody ever gets paid for doing promotional work? Or that if the band perform in a country where they’re less well known, they get paid less?Or that online piracy has killed the recorded music industry and record sales are just a fraction of what they used to be 10 years ago? Or that a film can be feted all over the world, but the distributors will get most of the money it makes? Or that success is relative and although Staff Benda Bilili get standing ovations in prestigious venues all over the world, they are not and will never be in the same commercial league as Rihanna or Emeli Sandé, because they sing “niche” music in a foreign language? How do you explain all that?”

Winter, whose previous successes include the Roma band Taraf de Haïdouks and Konono No.1 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a veteran of the global music management game, had taken on Staff without signing a contract. A mistake perhaps, but one easily made, even in good faith. The job of fighting officialdom and corruption to get passports and visas, of moving eight Congolese musicians around the world, four in wheelchairs, one on crutches, of persuading venues to cater for their disabilities, of managing spiralling flows of money and meeting countless challenges day in day out, allows little time for procedural perfection.

It seems to have baffled Likabu and baffled Ilunga too, who had no previous experience in the music industry. But Likabu lent his ear to Ilunga and began berating Winter about a host of gripes and supposed misdemeanours. There has been talk of Ilunga ringing up promoters and demanding to know how much the band were being paid. The promoters were then apparently ringing up the band’s agent, Yorrick Benoist at Run Productions, and asking who Ilunga thought he was. Some claim he started acting like the band’s manager, piling on demands while Likabu urged him on.

The band was earning good money, but it wasn’t enough. Each musician had a huge extended network of family and friends at home to support. They were also well aware that success had arrived late in life and time was against them. A new sense of urgency grew, as did the suspicions and machinations. The old sense of common purpose and harmony began to turn sour.

Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi started to get fed up with the atmosphere. Ilunga organised a disastrous trip to the Antilles, where the band were stitched up by a dodgy local and left high and dry at the airport without a return flight or a hotel. They blamed Winter, even though he had advised the band not to go. Winter travelled to Kinshasa to try and make peace and sort out the contract issue. Likabu and a few other members of the band rounded on him, calling him a no-good whip-cracking Belgian colonial slave-master and demanded extra money for previous tours. Likabu announced that he was no longer working with Winter, and in response Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi left the band. That was in early January this year. A few days later Run productions cancelled the European tour. Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi have since formed a new band with the percussionist Cubain Kabeya.

“So Staff Benda Bilili, at least as we have known and loved them for the past few years, are no more. The tragedy is that this story follows a tortured template established long ago – one that feels all too familiar to me, as someone with 25 years’ experience of working in this area, including a six-year spell managing the Tuareg band Tinariwen,” says Michel Winter. “Bands arrive from Africa with high hopes of Western showbiz. They see success in the applause of their audiences, but the dreamed-of financial rewards remain out of reach as unavoidable costs eat them away. Suspicion grows, partners are blamed, friendships turn sour and the dull and bitter reality dawns: Europe won’t make you fabulously rich, it just might, if you’re lucky, allow you to make a living from your music.”

This story is then a parable for Africa’s up and coming musicians dreaming of making it big on the international stage. It’s not all roses and it certainly is no walk in the park. Buyer, and in this case, aspiring artist, beware.

Sources:

* “Staff Benda Bilili: where did it all go so wrong?”  by Andy Morgan – http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/feb/15/staff-benda-bilili-where-did-it-go-wrong

About The Author

Afritorial

Neva is a storyteller and media strategist with a background in PR, film, advertising and digital marketing who is passionate about technology, new media and the endless possibilities of the social and mobile sphere. Read more about her on our 'About Us' page.

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