A new film opening day in New York and one that opened last year focus on African musicians who overcome disabilities—polio in particular—to make a life for themselves. They succeed both as inspiring testimonies to the ability of the disabled to surmount steep odds as well as the irresistible charm of African music and culture.
Opening today at the Quad Cinema, Alan Govenar’s documentary “You Don’t Need Feet to Dance” is a portrait of Sidiki Conde, a 52-year-old man from Guinea, West Africa who was stricken by polio in 1975. Initially almost completely paralyzed by the virus-borne ailment largely a thing of the past in richer countries, he regained the use of his entire body above his waist through strenuous exercise so much so that he gets around in most places by walking on his hands. When he was confronted by the need to dance in an initiation rite, he satisfied the requirements by by dancing on his hands rather than his feet.
First Run Features provides some background on Sidiki’s musical accomplishments:
Sidiki ran away to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, where he and his friends organized an orchestra of artists with disabilities recruited from the city’s streets. They toured the country, striving to change the perception of the disabled. In 1987, he became a member of the renowned dance company Merveilles D’Afrique, founded by Mohamed Komoko Sano. Sidiki became a soloist and served as rehearsal master, composing and directing the company’s repertoire. He also worked as a musician and arranger with Youssou N’Dour, Salifa Keita, Baba Maal and other popular musicians.
In 1998 Sidiki relocated to New York City where he continues his efforts as a professional musician and a trainer to the disabled, especially children. In one of the more intriguing moments of the film, you see him rehearsing with a band called Afro-Jersey that includes Terre Roche on guitar. If that name rings a bell, it is because she was one of the Roche sisters, a fabulous band that developed a cult following in the 1980s. I confess to being a member of that cult and have no regrets—something I can’t say about my membership in the Trotskyist movement.
As a kind of parallel story to Sidiki’s, this is also about the glories of life in New York. As you see Sidiki wending his way through the streets of New York, relying occasionally on the kindness of strangers, you understand that beneath its gruff exterior, there is no better place on earth to live. It is also a deep pleasure to see Sidiki taking part in African customs, going to a mosque, in other words all the things that drive Fox TV nuts. When I think about Golden Dawn terrorizing African immigrants in Athens, it makes my blood boil. If anything like this ever developed in New York, expect to see me going out to confront the fascists even though I am something of a physical coward.
Staff Benda Bilili is a Congolese band made up of disabled musicians just like Sidki Conde. In 2010 Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye made a documentary titled “Benda Bilili” (the words mean “look beyond appearances” in Linglala) that is now available as a DVD from Netflix. Additionally, you can watch the movie on Vimeo although only with French subtitles: https://vimeo.com/48679055
In addition to making music, the band campaigns around the need to bring Congo’s senseless and brutal civil wars to an end. I confess to not having seen the film but plan to watch the DVD from Netflix the first chance I get. That being said, I have heard them play on Youtube and they are terrific. Here is what David DeWitt had to say about the film in his September 29, 2011 NY Times review:
The joy is palpable when Staff Benda Bilili plays the World Music Festival in Oslo. A heart-racing energy pumps the musicians and transports the audience. The band celebrates by sipping wine with the Argentine ambassador, smoking substances in hotel rooms and reflecting on an improbably successful European tour.
The back story of these moments is uplift and then some: the core band members are middle-aged and disabled by polio, performing from wheelchairs and on crutches. Other players are teenagers of the street. All have known nights sleeping on cardboard in the urban misery of Kinshasa, Congo.
The documentary “Benda Bilili!,” in French and Lingala, captures five years in the lives of this intergenerational street band, five years in which the buskers move from practicing at the decaying Kinshasa zoo to performing for enraptured crowds on the strength of their album, “Très Très Fort,” French for “Very Very Strong” — which they are.