For its teenagers, the coups of this year’s Larmer Tree festival were Frank Turner and Tom Odell, headlining Friday and Sunday nights with, respectively, profanity-laden folk-punk and melodramatic piano ballads. And Public Service Broadcasting made a strong case for the banjo as a rave instrument. But for aficionados of world music, the big draw was the resurrection of Staff Benda Bilili, who staged their only UK show outside London on the main lawn.
The band are made up of an assortment of paraplegics and street children, who used to live around the zoo in Kinshasa. With two astounding albums and one documentary film under their belt, they then imploded amid acrid recriminations over money. It appeared that they would never be seen again, certainly not playing live in Europe. But with two new members, they made a defiant return: Larmer Tree was their first European appearance since 2012.
At base, Staff Benda Bilili play soukous – a speeded-up, Africanised version of Cuban rumba. But there are plenty of competent soukous bands, and although the band’s backstory is compelling, no one would turn out to watch them twice were that all they had to offer. What makes them endlessly watchable is the extra elements that they bring: a hardness and aggression that offset the cloying sweetness that can sometimes pervade soukous, and the eerie santonge playing of Roger Landu Santonge. He plays his home-made instrument, fashioned from an oil can and a brake cable, by squeezing it under his arm like a talking drum to form the notes and plucking the cable. The sound it makes is almost indescribable – sometimes a high-pitched mosquito whine, sometimes the ethereal moan of a Theremin, sometimes the keening of a witch trapped in a bottle.
A slow set-up, with endless tweaking of the onstage monitors, dramatically demonstrated why touring a 10-piece band, four of them in wheelchairs, eats up the band’s revenues. But when they started, they were as good as ever. Landu Santonge jumped around the stage, removed his jacket (the muggy humidity having presumably made him feel sufficiently at home), and reeled off santonge solos to keep the music at a rolling boil, periodically pausing to regroup before pushing onwards. As the set peaked he duelled with blues guitar riffs from Guelor Dianzenza Bakandio. The ululating barks of Djunana Tanga Suele, competing with the cries of the gardens’ resident peacocks, raised the energy – and that was before he climbed down from his wheelchair to dance on the floor of the stage. Kabossé Kabamba Kasongo twirled one of his crutches like a majorette, with enough vigour to send his microphone stand crashing into the pit. Landu Santonge stepped down on to the bass speakers to lead the crowd in one-legged hopping. “C’est ça, c’est ça!” he cried, as the music leapt up in key and in tempo.
A reggae number contrived to be both popular and underwhelming, but the close, with Dostin Mapoto Masebi pounding away at a rudimentary drum kit (one cymbal, an aluminium pan and drums that looked like cheap tourist curios) with the force of a Kinshasa John Bonham proved that the band remain, true to their boast, “très, très, fort”.
Previously, the Colombian-French-Vietnamese band La Chiva Gantiva had played a compelling set. On record, their relentlessness eventually becomes wearing; as an afternoon festival set, it makes perfect sense. Over an infinitely extended funk beat, they struck ninja poses, engaged in call-and-response with the crowd, pogoed enthusiastically, revelled in bubbly clarinet and saxophone motifs. Every square inch of space in the music was filled, so that any occasional pause felt like coming up for air. Rafael Espinel, the singer, started with good-humoured hysterical shouting and escalated from there.
Sunday’s folk offering included The Rails, fronted by Kami Thompson and James Walbourne, with a band that included Thompson’s nephew Zak. On record the band are a shade too polite, but in concert their traditional ballads of doomed lovers and modern tales of lowlife and villainy made a glorious racket reminiscent of the heyday of Thompson’s parents, Richard and Linda.
La Pegatina promoted themselves up the bill by missing their intended flight from Málaga, but proved their worth. They started by firing confetti cannons over the crowd, and followed up with a compressed set of Catalan ska, accordion and trumpet working overtime while one of the band undertook strenuous stage acrobatics. With organisers pointedly checking their watches, they promised one last song, and then set off through a protracted medley that included the Cancan and Eddy Grant’s “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”. As the sun set on the final day and the audience headed for the road home, La Pegatina were deep in their second set, still indefatigable.