Bentley's Bandstand: Staff Benda Bilili, Tanita Tikaram and Ray Charles

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Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili, Bourger Le Monde! It's time to test reality and follow the dots on this album. Staff Benda Bilili, formed by Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali, are a group of street musicians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's capital Kinshasa. Four of the main members are polio survivors and able to move around only on customized tricycles they built. When the band was formed, they recorded their debut album on the grounds of the city's zoo, plugging the borrowed Mac computer into a public electrical outlet. Needless to say, music lovers worldwide heard the call and began beating the drum for the band.

Staff Benda Bilili's sophomore release is also blowmind, mixing together the exciting elements of African music, R&B and even reggae, performed by up to ten members all blasting full-tilt. Realizing the kind of obstacles these men have had to overcome is to have an illuminating view into the unbeatable determination of true believers, and even better shows how music really is the world's healing force. Whether the rhythm of "Osali Mabe" is making the floor tilt or the outerspace sonics of "Kuluna/Gangs" threatens to spook the bravest among us, SBB take no prisoners.

The next time the current hit parade of superstars causes the horizon to look bleak and brings unanswerable questions concerning the future of popular music, drift into the world of Staff Benda Biliil's Bouger Le Monde! Even though the language is foreign and much of the sound comes from a faraway cotinent, there is also an immediate rush of recognition that among us are those who cannot be stopped, inspired by everything good and real that surrounds us. What began as abandoned street children stricken with a horrific disease has grown into a celebration of life, and if that doesn't bring an overwhelming hallelujah, well, Lady Gaga no doubt has a new fragance to sell to help poison the planet even faster.


Tanita Tikaram, Can't Go Back. The present is a beautiful place. Ask Tanita Tikaram. When still a teenager she had a huge hit single, "Twist in My Sobriety" and a debut album that sold over five million copies. That was in 1988. The world beckoned, and the young woman became a major star. But time went by, the albums sold less and one day it was hard to learn what Tikaram was doing. Well, good for music lovers everywhere, she was continuing to sing and, now, has made a beautifully touching recording that makes good on all the singer's early promise.

One key to songs like "All Things to You," "Dust on My Shoes" and "If the World Should Want for Love" is how Tanita Tikaram has found her center. Working with producer Paul Bryan and a simpatico room full of great musicians, this music could almost have been recorded 50 years ago in the heyday of Los Angeles studio sessions. There is no pretense or overextension of ideas, but rather a desire to serve the songs completely and go immediately to the heart of the matter. The natural spirit everyone is shooting for comes across loud and clear. Tikaram has defined a vision where she wants to go, and enlisted those who can help her find the way there.

On two songs, Grant Lee Phillips sings with Tanita Tikaram and it feels like they've been working together forever. Rarely do duet partners fit so seamlessly, but in this case it's an international blend of soulful ease. There is also a bonus CD of songs from Tikaram's past done with mostly just guitar and piano. They are gorgeous and somewhat haunting, a peek inside how she must feel about the past 25 years after she conquered the music charts on her first attempt. Staying a survivor takes strength and courage no matter what you do, and to hear someone soar as well is discovering that inner strength is always the guiding light for the future.


Ray Charles, Original Album Series. This five-pack of early Ray Charles albums for Atlantic Records is absolutely lethal. The releases start in 1957 and go to 1961, and in those four short years Charles single-handedly defines rhythm and blues for the time, and points to the upcoming birth of soul music. In doing that, Brother Ray displays a scorched earth ability to turns songs into searing testimonies of faith for all things wonderful: love, sex, God, and life, mixing up the order to continually confound any preconceptions we might have about the man.

Ray Charles at Newport is a live set that is almost beyond human ability. The band threatens to explode at every downbeat, the horn players plugged into the holy riffs that can take music straight to the stratosphere. The Great Ray Charles is slightly more subdued, but still a blood burner with jazzy versions of songs like "Black Coffee" and "Doodlin" that let the Charles band twist and turn and generally let it all hang out. The Genius of Ray Charles is where the singer zeroes in on throbbing classics like "Let the Good Times Roll," "Just for a Thrill" and (mercy) "Come Rain or Come Shine," helping him score hit singles and set the stage for one of the great runs of popular stardom American music has ever heard.

Two 1961 albums, The Genius After Hours and The Genius Sings the Blues, came after Ray Charles' mega-breakthrough smash "What'd I Say," and show just how soulful he continued to be. Instead of chasing the Top 10 stardom that surrounded him then, he turned inward and, really more than anyone had ever done, showed his pure genius expressing the hurt and happiness at the core of rhythm and blues. A song like "Hard Times" lives forever for its simple ability to express the devastation of lost love like very few other human attempts. Later, when Charles cries out "pray with me boys, please pray with me," it's all over but the melting. It should be required listening for anyone who has ever needed a helping hand trying to get to the other side of heartbreak. In fact, both these albums belong on the playlist of anyone claiming space on the planet. Accept no substitutes.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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