It’s been years since Staff Benda Bilili have gone from living on the streets around the Kinshasa zoo to international acclaim. But in their Boston debut Wednesday night, before 200 appreciative fans in the elegant third-floor theater at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the eight Congolese musicians still kept their presentation raw and rudimentary, dressing in jeans and T-shirts and playing basic instruments. In part, it signals their dedication to urban coolness. (Why else would frontman Theophile Nsituvuidi Nzonza wear shades all night?) But it also clearly showed how they’ve made artistic lemonade from life’s lemons.
The five front vocalists in the group are aging polio victims, four of them paraplegic. At the ICA, they shimmied and spun in wheelchairs, while piercing vocal hype-man Kabose Kabamba Kasongo raised audience members to their feet from his crutches. The group’s most powerful instrument was the singers’ massed vocals, usually backed by singer Coco Ngambali Yakala’s high, thin guitar, and always by the steady, bright burble of the three younger musicians standing behind them: Cavalier Kiara Mayingi on thick and agile bass; Montana Kinunu Ntunu on a patchwork drum kit that included an overturned pot, and Roger Landu Satonage on a self-invented electric lute that buzzed and pierced like an electric guitar filtered through a police radio.