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Disabled DR Congo street musicians push for copyright recognition

Chickens wander around the courtyard from which familiar city song emanates. Ten years after their glory days, body of workers Benda Bilili dream of returning to the limelight and declare all the fruits in their former fulfilment, despite the fact that it method falling out with people who made them recognised.

In the early 2010s, these penniless, disabled Congolese musicians, dwelling on the streets and driving in previous wheelchairs, grew to become rumba the wrong way up, set European venues ablaze and wowed the Cannes movie festival.

Their style was unique, the life of Ricky, Coco, Theo, Djunana... overwhelming. A first album, "Très très fort", was released in 2009, another, "Bouger le monde", followed in 2012. Beyond Europe, they gave concerts in Japan, Australia, the United States ...

Then the stunning tale leads to 2013. The organization breaks up; the cease of an excursion is cancelled.

"We were not really separated, there was a bit of misunderstanding," wants to believe today Roger, a former street kid who, while being able-bodied, joined the group in its early days, playing a funny little instrument cobbled together from a tin can.

In 2011, between tours, Roger described how everything had changed for him. "Life is good," he said. Now, at 35 and with six children, "it's hard."

After shopping for homes, clothes, automobiles, the money from excursions and statistics melted away, existence became hard once more for everyone.

About four years ago, on the advice of the head of a humanitarian NGO, they "reunited". He "brought us together, made us play together", explains Theo, one of the singers of the group, who met with all the other members at the home of their leader, Ricky.

The old trailblazer is 70 years old now. His look is wary, but he assures that he has the energy to resume the thread of the abruptly stopped quest.

Disabled DR Congo street musicians. Credit: ARSENE MPIANA/AFP

Every Thursday, they meet there, in Ndjili, a working-class district of Kinshasa, in the shade of a canvas stretched over the courtyard, to create new songs, to rehearse, to practice.

A mural depicts Ricky in his heyday. One of the latest songs is about Covid, the pandemic and containment. Lingala lyrics flow, neighbours drawn to the music push through the corrugated iron gate.

"Effacer le tableau"

A new album, "Effacer le tableau," was released, but received little attention. "We would like to make a new documentary," so we can tell the world that "Staff Benda Bilili is back," says Live Mindanda, the group's public relations officer.

But the group also aims to fight for its share of the revenues from the film that made them famous, "Benda Bilili", presented in 2010 in the documentary category at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, they have received nothing from theatrical screenings and admissions, they say.

"They are begging, while they have rights that can change their lives," says Live Mindanda.

Roger, Ricky and the others swear they are not at war with anyone. They do not all agree on the procedure to follow to get the money back. "But music is one thing, our rights are another," says Theo.

"We are going to assign the producers in front of the commercial court of Paris, and to ask for damages", explains the lawyer now in charge of carrying their file in justice, Me Mizou Bilongo Nsanda.

Among the directors and producers targeted, Renaud Barret explains that he himself did not receive his due until very late, after nearly ten years of conflict between distributors. About 25,000 euros, he says.

The contract provided that Staff Benda Bilili would receive 10% of the receipts. "We're going to give them their check, of course," says the French director, author of several other documentaries on Kinshasa, the sprawling city that takes you in its whirlwind of music and street art.


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