Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a vast, sprawling city in a vast, sprawling country ten times the size of the UK. The Congolese like to refer to their home as the “richest country on Earth”, a reference to the lush rainforest and its wealth of natural resources. Sadly, those killjoys at the International Monetary Fund like to refer to it as the “118th richest country on Earth”, coming in just behind financial powerhouses Armenia and Afghanistan, and presumably a reference to the years of conflict and political instability that have gutted the national infrastructure and left many of those resources in the hands of a motley assortment of warlords.
This makes Kinshasa a hell of a place to live at the best of times, but for Staff Benda Bilili singers Ricky Likabu, Theo Nsituvuidi, Coco Ngambali, Kabose Kaamba and Djunana Tanga there was also the complication of growing up with polio in a country with over 9,000 humans to every qualified doctor (the UK has 440). The core of the band bonded over their shared experience of disability, and many of their lyrics are directly informed by it. One song translates as “Parents, please go to the vaccination centre / Get your babies vaccinated against polio.”Of course, it is not this social consciousness that drew fans to the Brighton Dome the night I met them, so I began by asking if they fear their songs have less of an impact for crowds who not only don’t understand the lyrics, but are also living lives a world away from the situation the songs were born in. Michel Winter, their manager and acting translator, sums up their answer: “They’re here so that people can enjoy it. They realise that European audiences like their music, so what the lyrics mean isn’t so important. The music is good and so is their attitude on stage and the energy they give. They’re just happy to be here.”