In 2004 Florent de La Tullaye and Renaud Barret encountered Leon “Ricky” Likabu playing music on the streets of Kinshasa. A victim of poliomyelitis, he was joined by fellow wheelchair-bound musicians and street youth. Together, with old beat-up or hand-made instruments, the group played what could only be described as folk music: honest, heart-felt songs about life’s beauty and pain. They called themselves Staff Benda Bilili, which translates to “see beyond appearances” or “put forward what is hidden.”
A few years later, after Tullaye and Barret introduced the group to the Crammed Discs record label, they recorded an album at a local zoo, where they often slept and rehearsed. Word spread—as did copies of the CD—and Likabu and his band were soon performing their unique Congolese music to audiences across Europe. The band’s journey (now much YouTubed) is the subject of “Benda Bilili!,” a documentary film by Tullaye and Barret, two Frenchmen, that screened recently at the BFI London Film Festival.
“[Ricky] told us in 2004 they would be the most famous disabled band ever,” Tullaye told the London audience during a Q&A after the screening. “And their lives have now changed dramatically. They are no more in the streets. They all have houses, they’ve opened little businesses, and they’ve put all of their children in schools.”
“Benda Bilili!” is an earnest and funny film. After prolonged, uncensored exposure to these brazen personalities, it’s easy to feel invested in and connected to these musicians. By the time they’re toasting their newfound success over rum in a hotel room in Oslo, you’re right there with them.
“Benda Bilili” was one of several films at the recent London Film Festival to explore unconventional music scenes around the world.
Another notable film was “The Taqwacores”, a feature about a group of young Muslims who bask in the self-expression and aggressiveness of punk rock while grappling with the demands of Islam. Directed by Eyad Zahra and adapted from a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, the film takes place in a run-down household in Buffalo, New York.
The lone female resident wears a full burqa covered in safety-pins and patches with phrases such as “Who would Jesus bomb?” She crosses out sections of the Koran that she doesn’t like, has a framed quote from Patti Smith in her bedroom and a Banksy book on her shelf. The leader of the house has a bright-red Mohawk, wears Alternative Tentacles T-shirts and has dreams about chilling out with Johnny Cash.
The young Muslims living in the house debate Islam, smoke a lot of cigarettes, go skateboarding, host group prayers and, in the final scenes of the film, host a big house party for several West Coast (“Khalifornia”) Taqwacore bands to perform at. “Just like Sid Vicious wearing the swastika, Taqwacore is punk up the fuckin’ ass, man,” one Muslim punk explains.
“Microphone,” a new film by Ahmad Abdalla, was originally conceived as documentary about a Banksy-influenced stencil artist in Alexandria named Khaled. But it grew to become a larger look at the city’s counterculture movement, including many of the unknown Alexandria bands Khaled had worked with and created artwork for.
The result is a sympathetic story about the struggle of musicians in a city where places to rehearse and perform are thin on the ground. Residents complain that live music disrupts afternoon prayer, and police shut down an attempt to stage a show at a local coffee shop.
There is no big triumph for these musicians by the end of the film, just a loose feeling of hopeful solidarity. As the closing credits roll, they take a seat on the rocks by the sea, strap on their guitars and sing for each other. As one bummed-out singer earlier in the film puts it, their life is like “a mirage on a grain of dust.”