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. 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.
Staff Benda Bilili – group of street musicians in the Republic of the Congo.
Staff Benda Bilili
At their peak Staff Benda Bilili played to audiences all over the world and were the subject of a documentary,
Staff Benda Bilili Biography (Wikipedia)
Staff Benda Bilili
Staff Benda Bilili are a group of street musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They used to live around the grounds of the zoo in the country’s capital city, Kinshasa, and play music which is rooted in soukous, with elements of old-school rhythm and blues and reggae. The core of the band consists of four senior singers/guitarists, who are paraplegic (they had poliomyelitis when they were young) and move around in spectacularly customized tricycles. They are backed by a younger rhythm section consisting of abandoned street children who were taken under the protection of the older members of the band. The soloist is an 18-year-old boy (2009) who plays guitar-like solos on an electrified one-stringed lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can. The group’s name translates roughly from Lingala as “look beyond appearances”.
Staff Benda Bilili have earned the 2009 Artist Award at Womex (World Music Expo).
Staff Benda Bilili have sought to raise awareness about crimes against humanity in Democratic Republic of the Congo, contributing to the Enough Project and Downtown Records’ Raise Hope for Congo compilation.
Staff Benda Bilili: where did it all go so wrong?
The story of this Congolese band – who went from sleeping rough on the streets of Kinshasa to global fame – is one of cultural misunderstanding that ended in bitter financial acrimony
In 2007, Staff Benda Bilili were playing to an audience of vultures and emaciated primates in Kinshasa’s desperate zoo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The band had never left the country, and this was their regular rehearsal space. When we met, most of them were either sleeping rough on cardboard boxes or in decrepit shelters for the disabled and making ends meet by busking or hawking cigarettes on the city’s toxic streets.
Last September, the band headlined the Royal Albert Hall in London, the culmination of four astonishing years during which they played more than 400 concerts at every corner of the globe. Back home they bought new houses, Mercs, Bimmers, clothes, trilbies … even a new hotel.
There was a documentary film, Benda Bilili, charting their extraordinary success – made all the more extraordinary by the fact that several of the band were polio victims. But now Staff have fallen apart: singer and songwriter Coco Ngambali has quit, along with fellow vocalist Théo Ntsituvuidi, and a tour of top European venues scheduled for March and April has been cancelled. How did it all go so wrong?
“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 recently throwing in the towel himself.
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.
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.”
It seems, however, that 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.
And 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?
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.
When I call Ilunga to get his version of events, he is plainly riled. At first he denies that Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi have quit, or that the forthcoming European tour has been cancelled. “The band know nothing! No one gives them any information,” he tells me at a galloping pace. “And no payments either. Salaries for 40 concerts in Europe and the US in 2012 haven’t been paid to the band. And where’s the contract? No one works in the music business without a contract.”
All his accusations are denied by Winter and Benoist. The band were paid for their gigs in Europe and the US. It’s just that, as Winter insists was preagreed, their wages were lower than usual because the fees were lower, especially in the US where Staff Benda Bilili were still relatively unknown. He also insists that they have been given information, lots of it. Whether they have digested it is another matter. And the contract? Winter maintains that he did offer a management contract to the band, but that it never got past Likabu, who refused to sign it because it was in the name of all the members of the band rather than himself alone.
It seems that Likabu’s toughness may have been galvanised by all the stress into impatience and imperiousness. 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.When I finally get through to Ngambali after days of trying, he confirms the news. He has quit. So has Ntsituvuidi. Why? “Bad administration,” he answers succinctly before going on to tell me that he’s already formed a new band with Ntsituvuidi and the percussionist Cubain Kabeya. “We’re rehearsing right now,” he tells me over the honeyed sound of a rhumba guitarist in the background.
Staff Benda Bilili
Staff Benda Bilili