Staff Benda Bilili's success in the west has obscured the reality of blinged-up stars and adoring fans in the dancehalls of Kinshasa
In cinemas now is the film Benda Bilili, a documentary telling the extraordinary story of Staff Benda Bilili. If you haven't been paying attention, Staff are group of mosty polio-stricken street musicians from Kinshasha who've ended up making it big around the world. This is undoubtedly something to celebrate ? but with all due respect to the band, it is shameful that it takes a Congolese act to be disabled to make them of such interest. In many ways, the band's image reflects a very western perception of African music. The reality for the blinged-up stars and their adoring fans in the dancehalls of Kinshasa can often involve a very different, much glitzier story.
Back catalogues of outstanding Congolese music are largely ignored in the UK, yet few countries have produced such a rich seam of consistently innovative and socially meaningful popular music. From roughly 1960-1990, artists such as Franco and his band TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rocherau and Zaiko Langa Langa were the biggest musical acts in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of musicianship, Franco's music is up there with the Beatles, yet if you ask 99% of people in Europe or America, they won't have heard of him.
In 2011 the music heard in the streets and bars of Kinshasa increasingly blends dancehall, hip hop and r'n'b with traditional rumba, while artists such as JB Mpiana, Ferre Gola and Koffi Olomide are as much about image, designer gear, waving wads of cash and bragging as they are about the music. The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark ? although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.
Lately a darker hindrance has emerged: groups known among the Congolese diaspora in Paris, Brussels and London as combatants, who have started blocking artists from performing in Europe. Angry at perceived support for the government, their threats of violence make it difficult for promoters to organise concerts.
Vincent Luttman is a radio DJ and host of Nostalgia Ya Mboka a weekly show on Resonance 104.4FM. His collection of Congolese rumba records is so large he has lost count, but he estimates he has around 14,000 tracks in total. A post-punk guitarist from south-east London, Luttman fell in love with the music of Congo when the country was still called Zaire in the 1980s. "I was initially drawn to the guitars. I felt the punk movement to be the death of rock'n'roll but in rumba I heard the power of rock'n'roll enduring", he says. "As my social consciousness increased I began to reject western music, which had a platform to speak but said very little."
Trawling through Vincent's collection we pulled out 10 contemporary and classic grooves straight from the streets of Kinshasa. Many of these records are released as limited pressings and finding them can be an arduous task. Our best advice is to try the specialist African music outlet Stern's.
1. This sublime track Elixir by Cindy Le Coeur ? a prot�g� of the great Koffi Olomide ? features synths and three guitars alongside congas. Reminiscent of Sade or Angelique Kidjo, Cindy could easily be a chart star in Europe given the right promotion.
2. Ferre Gola is one of the biggest stars of the new generation. This track, Madia Tambambi, contains elements of dancehall and calypso ? reflecting Kinshasa's melting pot of influences and the hybridity that globalisation and MTV has brought to African music.
3. Classic Franco & TPOK Jazz from a TV performance in the mid 80s with vocalist Josky Kiambukuta's composition Tokabola Sentiment. An irresistible, mesmeric dance track.
4. Contemporary rapper Baloji dances through the buzzing streets of Kinshasa accompanied by the experimental tradi-modern bazombo music of Konono No 1. The song is called Karibu Ya Bintou
5. Singer MJ30 (known as Meejee) performs a song by classic chanteuse Mpongo Love.
6. Baloji again, here interpreting the classic hymn to independence from Belgian rule Independence Cha Cha first recorded in 1960 by 'Le Grand Kalle' Joseph Kabasele and the group African Jazz.
7. Antoine Wendo Kolosoy, the grandfather of Congolese rumba, with a re-interpretation of his 1948 song Mary Louise, re-recorded in 2005 three years before his death at the age of 83.
8. The veteran Papa Wemba and his orchestra performing version of the hit song La Reference at l'Hotel Venus in Kinshasa in 2010.
9. A dazzling performance by Lita Bembo and Stukas Boys from 1975, a classic example of the new wave of musical nationalism instigated by president Mobotu's decree of authenticit�.
10. JB Mpiana ? one of the biggest stars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a product of the Wenge school of musicians ? with the title track from his 2011 album Soyons Serieux.