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.
“Staff Benda Bilili” means “look beyond appearances” in Lingala, and from the opening number, “Moziki,” the group lifted the room with their quick, sparkling, lightly staggered Congolese rumba. By the third number, the remarkably slow-building “Moto Moindo,” portions of the largely older, white audience had broken into the wings to dance (including one gray-haired woman on crutches).
Not every song stood out strongly, nor did any of the solo vocalists. But for 90-plus minutes, the show had plenty of verve and variety. Roger danced with a young audience member who knew how; Djunana Tanga Suele skittered off his wheelchair to boogie on the floor; they even got a decent call-and-response going with the crowd. It was sweet, tart, and satisfying.