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Staff Benda Bilili fall apart

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Joined: 17 Oct 2004
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Location: Brissle

PostPosted: Tue Jan 22, 2013 12:45 pm    Post subject: Staff Benda Bilili fall apart Reply with quote

Sad news of breakdown in the ranks of the Congolese band whose debut album was fRoots Critics Poll album of the year 2010.

I should perhaps draw attention to the comment I made in my World Music History feature in fRoots March 2000: "Imagine what suspicions must easily and understandably course through the minds of third world musicians working with western producers and promoters, especially when their home experience of the record business is often of being ripped-off and bootlegged by their fellow countrymen on an unimaginable scale. Why on earth would this apparently rich Westerner (for that's how we seem) be doing this for hardly any return? They must be ripping me off! Couple that with the quite reasonable logic that Michael Jackson's got a CD out and he's riding in limos and living in a mansion, but I've got a CD out and I'm not... Small wonder that virtually all world music producers and promoters have at least one sad tale to tell of an unfortunate misunderstanding or relationship breakdown over money with a musician they'd worked so hard to help."

For those with French:

This, from Michel Winter of Mukalo Productions who has been one of the most hard working and dedicated people working with world music artists over recent decades is, sadly, not the first story of its kind.

Some non-French speakers have asked me to translate the text I posted yesterday. The text concerns the scheming and slanderous comments made by the self-proclaimed new manager of Staff Benda Bilili. This man is a fellow countryman of the musicians, an accountant living in Paris, who, in the name of the NGO Staff Benda Bilili, with the complicity of the leader of the group, tried to take over Staff Benda Bilili and “hijack” upcoming concerts for his own profit by making direct contact with music hall directors and making offensive accusations about Run Productions and Mukalo Production. The text below is a follow-up to an article published in “Le Monde” yesterday, which thankfully sets the record straight on several points. The result of all this scheming is the break-up of the band. Coco and Théo, leading members of the band for their role as composer/vocalists and solo guitar players, have left the band and refuse to be associated with this dubious project. Moreover, all the upcoming concert dates have been cancelled.

What particularly saddens me about this whole affair is that Staff Benda Bilili still had a promising future ahead of them. When I met the band in 2008 in Kinshasa – a place I visit often – they were living on the streets. It is thanks to the combined efforts of Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, the directors of the film Benda Bilili; the record company Crammed Discs (and its artistic director, Vincent Kenis); the Management company Mukalo Production; the tour agent Run Productions and - last but far from least - the talent of the artists, that the group has been such a dazzling success. There is but a handful of people like us who venture to Kinshasa to promote, produce and build careers in this country that has so much talent to offer. It may be that I have just named them all. 

The DRC is a country where every stage is a struggle, not only with local authorities, but above all with European and other OECD country embassies to obtain the visas allowing the bands to travel and perform and thereby earn a decent living.

At the time, I was emerging from another calamitous affair involving the cancellation of 35 concerts for Konono n°1 due to refused visas. This did not stop me from continuing to fight for Konono n°1, or for Staff, despite the fact that I did not at the time have the slightest idea of how to organize tours with a group of musicians with handicaps, a totally new experience for me.

The lightning success of the band: first concert at Eurockéennes, Womex Award, Cannes Festival, the film - applauded everywhere… perhaps led certain members of the band to believe that all this was a matter of course, that money would flow and, as is often the case, attracted the covetous attention of people who know nothing about the profession but who are always quick to dish out “good advice”.

Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Despite appearances – for we must always go beyond mere appearances, must we not? – we still depend on a circuit of subsidized concert halls with limited means. Despite Staff Benda Bilili’s success, we are not yet able to fill the Zénith or the Stade de France. And perhaps that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Yet, at the time of writing, after just 3 years of international tours, the members of the band have all managed to buy plots of land, build houses (one of them has even built a hotel), set up businesses, import several cars each, send their children to school (scandalously expensive in DRC), etc…

I have nothing to be ashamed of in the work that has been accomplished thus far. I have been in this profession for 22 years. I started out with the Taraf de Haidouks, then worked with Kocani Orkestar, Tartit, Konono n°1, Kasai Allstars… all bands that were completely unknown or barely known in their own countries. With each group, my company Mukalo and our partners, Crammed Discs and Divano Production, among others, were the forerunners, the first to produce Gypsies from Romania, a Gypsy brass band from Macedonia, Touaregs from Mali, and the tradi-modern style from DRC. Every time, or nearly every time, others followed in our footsteps and I still have the trust of all these artists, even those with whom I no longer work. I have never taken the easy path and certainly not with a view to earning a fortune. If World Music could bring in riches, we would know by now! 

Today, the career of a band in full flight has been destroyed and the reputations of many passionate and devoted people have been sullied by an accountant from a local authority, a civil servant, proclaiming himself to be a Manager. Some members of the band have been lured in by the call of the mermaid, others have not (see article in Le Monde). I hope that all of them will find their way back onto the world stage and their numerous fans. I will always stand by those who place their trust in me."

Michel Winter - Director of Mukalo Productions
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