KINSHASA, Congo — Two years ago, Papa Ricky slept in the streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, but an album by a band he leads has opened the way to wealth for some handicapped Congolese musicians.
"Now I have a home of my own!" exclaims Papa Ricky in the house being built for him in Kinshasa. Papa Ricky Likabu, 58, heads Benda Bilili, which has gone in a few years from being a street group of handicapped people to a touring band with a successful first album, "Tres, tres fort!" ("Very, very strong/loud!").
Five handicapped performers and the rest of the group, three other musicians from the poorest parts of Kinshasa, returned to the DR Congo at the end of 2010 after a tour that took them to Europe and Asia.
They own land, vehicles and clothes that they never dreamed of possessing one day, until the band attracted attention with its lively, funky rumba style and also drew a couple of movie makers.
The "miracle" of Benda Bilili has been followed and filmed by Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye in a documentary named after the group, which was selected for the prestigious Cesar awards -- France's version of the Oscars -- last month, but did not win.
"My life has completely changed. Today I eat copiously and I wear designer clothes. I have become a totally different person," says Roger Landu, a former street kid who deftly plays a kind of lute he fashioned out of a string and a tin can. He is clad in a tuxedo and a white hat, with leather shoes.
"With my wheel chair, I spent two hours at the bus stop," recalls Kabose Kasungo, a 37-year-old singer in Benda Bilili. "Many drivers refused to stop when they saw that I was handicapped."
But now he is seated in a large green limousine, the door ajar with a pair of crutches attached to the handle. Kabose combines his singing job with that of a used car salesman. He owns four vehicles himself and employs two people, one of whom is also handicapped.
"I'm a boss, people are interested in me these days. Unfortunately, it's often to ask me for money," he says with a mocking smile.
Montana, the drummer who goes by one name, 35, runs a bistro and a bar in a remote part of Kinshasa.
"I've become a role model for a lot of people in this district," he says, adding that he is waiting for the money from the band's "next tour, to begin to build apartments".
Benda Bilili are due to fly to Europe in early March for a new tour when they will give more than 40 concerts in two months.
"Since we came back, we haven't been resting. We get a lot of concert invitations," says Papa Ricky. He too is counting on making money from the next tour to recover some of his goods currently held by customs at the port of Matadi.
The group rehearses five days a week and gives free shows on Saturdays. The rehearsals no longer take place in the street or notably in the zoo, which now is a zoo in name only. Benda Bilili performs in a small hall dubbed the Cabaret Sauvage in tribute to their concert at a Paris nightspot of the same name, the Cabaret Sauvage.
Many expatriates join the Congolese who turn up to hear the music, which includes numbers from "Tres, tres fort!" and new songs that the band is working on. A second album with about a dozen songs is scheduled to come out at the beginning of 2012.
"Those who mocked us have their jaws dropping now," says Papa Ricky, who is proud that Benda Bilili has made adepts in Kinshasa, most of whom also hope to see music change their lives.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Posted by BA Haller at 8:54 PM