There are 500 people in the audience, according to one of the stewards. Not absolutely full, but enough to pretty much fill up the downstairs and the bottom part of the upstairs rows. After a few announcements forbidding photographs, Fatoumata Diawara comes onto the stage. She’s stunningly lovely with a striped turban. No backing musicians, just Fatou and a guitar.
Born in Ivory Coast of Malian parents, Fatou has been performing for years, starting out as a dancer, then acting, both on stage and screen and touring internationally. In recent years she has developed her own music, composing, arranging and performing her own material, blending Wassalou traditional music with elements of jazz and funk. The Town Hall is a big venue for an acoustic solo singer, but Fatou was comfortable and confident, filling the space with a lovely natural voice and excellent guitar playing. She held the obviously knowledgeable crowd spellbound. I particularly liked the love song, ‘Kanou’, and look forward to her debut album in September.
After the interval came the act that everyone was waiting for, Staff Benda Bilili. The story of how Staff Benda Bilili came to be is becoming increasingly well-known — a group of street musicians, all paraplegics, living in and round Kinshasa zoo in the Democratic Congo, who formed a band. Many of their lyrics tell the stories of their lives – ‘I was born a strong man, but polio crippled me, Look at me today, I’m screwed onto my tricycle’ (‘Polio’); ‘I once slept on cardboard, Good luck hit me, I bought myself a mattress’ (‘Tonkara’).
But as this evening made clear, disability and poverty is only peripherally the point of Staff Benda Billili. The name itself translates as ‘look beyond appearances’ — literally, ‘put forward what is hidden’. And what is behind the wheelchairs, the crutches, the homemade instruments is talent.
The eight musicians arrived on stage. Five older disabled musicians form the core of the band — 4 in wheelchairs and one on crutches tonight. They sometimes appear on their motorized tricycles, but, according to one of the stewards, the Town Hall stage just couldn’t cope! They’re backed by three former street kids adopted by the older members of the band, a guitarist, a great drummer, and Roger, playing an instrument he created, the satonge, a kind of electric one string lute, whose sound somewhat reminded me of a musical saw.
Within minutes, the fact that these were people with disabilities was forgotten. The music took over the hall and the sheer exuberance of the band took over. They played, they rocked and they danced. By the third song the entire downstairs crowd was up on its feet and the audience danced the night through.
Given the nature of the band and the music, I was surprised that Birmingham Town Hall had made this a seated concert. The seats are removable — one of the advantages of using the Town Hall for gigs. Nevertheless, the seats didn’t stop the audience from leaping about and having a great time.
Congolese music frequently has a strong Cuban element to it, although of course Cuban music itself has its roots in the African music brought over by slaves, so its incursion into Africa is a kind of diasporic returning. But the mix of African and Latin rhythms creates a high energy show which virtually pushes you onto your feet. The band themselves were among the most energetic of the dancers, moving, leaping, spinning round in their wheelchairs and in one case, climbing down from the wheelchair to perform an energetic variation on break-dancing.
These were men having a great time and their enthusiasm was infectious. There was fabulous rapport between them. They were also some of the most beautiful men I had seen for a long time — tremendously expressive faces. I was taking photos during the first couple of songs — fortunately before the audience erupted! — and so was lucky enough to be able to stand at the edge of the stage, just watching them.
I have — and like — their CD but it’s not the same. This is a band that demands to be seen — there is a rawness, a power and a genuineness that is only fully seen during a live performance. But beyond that, this is a band who seemed to be having as much fun as the audience was — a great evening of partying together.
There was the usual merchandise stall, but at the end of the evening there was also a stall selling toys made by the Centre for People with Disabilities in Kinshasa. And these weren’t anodyne sets of wooden blocks or cuddly rabbits — these were ingenious models of metal and wire, depicting people with disabilities — drummers on tricycles who drummed when you pushed them along, people in wheelchairs who waved their arms about, others who pedalled their motorbikes. Positive and fun images of people with energy, power and style. I couldn’t resist — a drummer now sits on my mantelpiece, reminding me of a great night out but also making me think about the choices we make and the sheer indomitability of the human spirit.
Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund