Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice Of Lightness

Keith Harris

By Keith Harris

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Tabu Ley Rochereau has long been hailed as the Congo's greatest modern vocalist, but curious parties here in the west have mostly had to accept his reputation on faith. The haphazardly selected compilations and peppy, synth-heavy later efforts available to us provided little more of glimpses into his art. Only the glorious Omono Wapi, Rochereau's mid-'80s collaboration with his only rival for rumba supremacy, Franco, hinted at the source of his legendary status.

The perfect introduction to a vocal master.

But if The Voice of Lightness is, to say the least, overdue, that's not to say it's merely definitive by default. Charting the broad range of Rochereau's music over its first decade and a half, this compilation is practically an encyclopedia of Congolese guitar styles, from Dr. Nico's jazzy lyricism on “Keyla” through the beefed up soukous-rock of Zaiko Longa Longa. And the chronological historical context allows us to hear Rochereau as modernist innovator, the man who introduced the trap-drum to Congolese rumba, and who introduced Congolese rumba to Paris.

And what's he singing about? Himself, quite a bit. Wealthy benefactors, maybe even more often — among the highlights here is a soap commercial, "Savon Omo," a consumerist twist on the African tradition of praise songs. Ladies, whenever possible. And the funky "Aon Aon," he imitates a wah-wah guitar — a reminder that whatever the literal lyrics emerging from his mouth, Rochereau is always really celebrating the sounds that he and his bands are able to create.