Review: Staff Benda Bilili, Bury St Edmunds Festival, The Apex,Thursday May 19

Staff Benda Bilili, Bury St Edmunds Festival, The Apex,Thursday May 19

The first concert of this year’s Bury St Edmunds Festival clashed with another for which I had long held tickets - leaving me with a dilemma. I’m glad I made the right choice; the Staff Benda Bilili concert was an extraordinary and unique event.

It would take a cynical person not to be fascinated and moved by the story of these performers – a group of paraplegic street musicians, polio victims, who live in and around the grounds of Kinshasa zoo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, getting about on customised tricycles.

Also with them is a young able-bodied man, formerly a street-child, adopted by the founder of the band many years ago, and who has since become a virtuoso musician on a home-made electric instrument he created – basically a tin can and a piece of guitar wire on which he plays complex guitar-like solos.

These musicians survived in a context of poverty and homelessness until some French film-makers discovered them a few years ago; now they’re an international sensation. They arrived on stage in wheelchairs and on crutches and were joined by an incredible drummer who plays a simple home-made drum kit, and by a bass player.

And then they perfomed for two hours with extraordinary energy, style and musicianship, the highly rhythmic backing complemented by compelling vocals and tight harmony singing. Within thirty seconds a few people were dancing in the aisles; by the end of the night the whole audience was on its feet.

What a sensation! What a triumph of the human spirit! What a start to this year’s Festival!

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Wynn Rees