Monthly Archives: April 2009

Who Doesn’t Like Talking About Paraplegic Congolese Musicians

There is nothing quite as awesome (read: politically correct) as Congolesstaff-benda-bilili-002e paraplegics who ride motorized tricycle wheelchairs and play guitars in a zoo. Which is why writing articles about Kinshasa rumba band Staff Benda Bilili is both fun and awkward. In recent reviews of the band’s new album Tres Tres Fort, the Guardian described the inner-workings of the group:

When they’re not busy prowling their local dilapidated zoological gardens or flogging cheap booze and fags outside nightclubs, the band sing and play their instruments while sitting on bizarre customised tricycles as a bunch of younger, all-acoustic players – including an ex-street kid who plays a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can – bash out various infectious rhythms behind them. What’s Congolese for, “We’re not judging or anything, but what is THAT?”

The BBC obviously felt more uncomfortable about the whole thing and only tell us:

Staff Benda Bilili hail from the streets of Kinshasa. A group of disabled musicians form the core of the band. Backed by a younger, acoustic rhythm section and a hand made, electric one string lute called the Satonge.

And NPR Music reports:

Staff Benda Bilili (is) a group of paraplegic street musicians who entertain from their base near the city’s zoological gardens.

Zoological gardens? Sounds like the city board of Kinshasa is really investing in local scientific spaces and friendly urban planning initiatives. On a scale of PC Africa representation, NPR wins the gold medal.

And while everyone should have at least one Congolese paraplegic musician friend, if you can’t find one, listen to Staff Benda Bilili’s new record just so you can keep that dream alive.



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A New Type of 419

Dear Friend,

I am Christian Lowell III, son of Christian Lowell II. I write you in urgent need of assistance. I am living with my brother in a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. Needless to say, the conditions are deplorable. The pools have not been cleaned since yesterday and, with two of the gym’s treadmills in need of repair, the wait time for a treadmill directly in front of one of the eight plasma TVs is averaging four to six minutes.

We require your immediate help. My mother must get a second eyelift as soon as possible. If she does not have the procedure, she will be condemned to the unspeakable state of looking her age. My brother is weeks from dying (a social death) if he cannot complete his course of medical treatments at the Central Park West Hair Restoration Clinic. And my father recently lost his job and most of his money, except for the funds he keeps hidden for mistresses and his collection of memorabilia from the Reagan administration.

To find out more about Christian Lowell III’s horrendous situation and how to help, read the rest of Rupinder Gill’s 419 New Yorker E-mail Scam.

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Importing Forgiveness to Rwanda

Jean Hatzfeld understands the Rwandanthe-antelope-strategy genocide.  He has spent the past ten years unpacking the violence, sitting with both killers and victims day after day, primus after primus. Hatzfeld’s recently translated third book, “The Antelope’s Strategy; Living in Rwanda after the Genocide,” tracks both victims and killers and their challenge to live side by side.  Both groups are brutally honest about the post-genocidal realities they navigate.

Innocent Rwililiza, a Tutsi whose wife and children were killed in the Nymata Church Massacre, responds to the release of 6,000 genocidaires after 7-year terms in jail:

“If you think about it, who is it talking about forgiveness? The Tutsis? The Hutus? The freed prisoners and their families? None of them. It’s the humanitarian organizations. They are importing forgiveness to Rwanda, and they wrap it lots of dollars to win us over. There is a Forgiveness Plan just as there is an AIDS Plan, with public awareness meetings, poster, petty local presidents, super-polite Whites in all-terrain turbo vehicles. These humanitarian workers lecture our teachers, bring our communal councilors on board. They finance various assistance projects. As for us, we speak of forgiveness to earn their good opinion – and because the subsidies can be lucrative.”

Rwililiza’s reflection is one dot in an emotional spectrum that Hatzfeld captures. Rwililiza’s words also speak to the prominence of a ‘genocide industry’ in full force; an industry that organizes Mega-Galas for spectacle and an industry with self-imposed blinders to a political project that might once again ultimately aid violence.

Interestingly, the fear of Kagame’s manipulation of the genocide as a tool for repression has set the tone for the 15th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide (at least in the all-powerful blogosphere). However, there has been little reflection on the role of how NGOs and humanitarian organizations currently operating in Rwanda are facilitating, magnifying, or challenging this political tension by focusing on the genocide.

While there is still much to reconcile, it forces an important question: How do you appropriately address the genocide as an organization without passively assisting its abuse?

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Artists Gather to Save Africa and Send Wishes

Breaking news from the Onion on a celebrity attempt to be really, really kind to poor people:

ROME—More than 40 artists, including U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Rihanna, and Rage Against the Machine, performed at six simultaneous concerts across the globe Saturday as part of a new benefit show to wish the world’s desperately impoverished the best of luck. The $200-a-ticket event raised more than $80 million, which will be put toward thousands of good-luck cards and balloons for developing countries and a fund for future charity performances. “I hope you will all join me in extending a hand of friendship to the have-nots, shaking their hand once, and walking away,” Al Gore said in a special message via satellite. “You’ve had it pretty bad, and it’s not likely to get better. May God help you all. See ya!” Producer Quincy Jones also brought all the participating artists together to record an all-star track that will be made available to the poor through iTunes.

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Optimism About Regrouping Among Disbanding Congolese Rebels

Remember those other rebel groups  operating in the Eastern DRC who aren’t rebel-groupthe FDLR? Apparently, they no longer exist. According to IRIN, 18 rebel groups signed an agreement declaring their simultaneous dissolution.

Mai Mai spokesman Didier Bitaki is optimistic about disbanding, particularly because it offers the opportunity to re-band:

“We have signed this document, which some are calling a death certificate for armed groups, but that does not mean that there are no more [armed] groups on the ground because each one justifies itself through patriotism, either for families or villages or to protect goods. Once threatened, they tend to take up arms,” said Didier Bitaki.

“Mayi-Mayi is a state of mind that means we can sign ourselves into non-existence today but tomorrow, because of dissatisfaction or frustration or a threat, we cannot, as Congolese people, be stopped from organising ourselves to resist,” he added.

Nothing more trust-inspiring than an implicit promise to regroup.

Bitaki makes an important point though: rebellion and violence have become an embedded social logic in the Congo. Mayi-Mayi is a way of life. It is a structured social system with a complex moral cosmology historically grounded in the Simba movements of 1960s Katanga, the Masisi rebellion of 1930, and early 1900 rebellions of East Africa that is’t going to disappear with another proclamation.  The same goes for many of the signatory groups.

That said, this new declaration will give time for these militias to rest and regroup. And on top of that, I’m sure they made cool commemorative pens for the event.


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West Africa, Eat Your Heart Out.

Rokia Traoré does something on her latest album Tchamantché that West African artists don’t do:  she grabs a Gretsch guitar to meet Malian beats with lush blues riffs. And its amazing.

Rokia Traoré is to the West African musical patriarchs Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabeté as Bebel Gilberto is to the Afro-funk kings Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben; she forcefully and sensuously retextures classic sounds by syncopating them with new rhythms and foreign instruments.

She covers Billie Holiday tunes, yet never loses that archetypal West African stringed sound. She sings in Bamana, French and English. And, she is on tour. She should be your next cd, or at least, next youtube watch:

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Best Worst African News Title of Day

The prize goes to Afrique en Ligne’s thoughtfully entitled article:

2009 Goldman Environment Prize goes to Gabonese Cripple

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