The Incredible Lightness of Being Tabu Ley Rochereau

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.07.11 in Spotlights

Tabu Ley Rochereau is more than just one of the greatest singers and composers in African popular music. He’s also the master politician of the Congolese dance-band nation, which has splintered, fractured, revolted, imploded and rebuilt itself more or less continuously over the course of three generations while producing some of the world’s most beautiful and sophisticated music along the way.

Born Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou in 1940 in Banningville, a port town in the Banandu region of the Belgian Congo, Tabu Ley was raised in Léopoldville. He acquired the nickname “Rochereau” as a schoolboy. Teenage Tabu Ley was a prodigy, and the Lingala, French and pidgin-Spanish songs he submitted to Joseph “Le Grand Kalle” Kabasele eventually earned him a gig with Kabasele’s African Jazz, the city’s top band. Rochereau enjoyed his first hit in 1958 with “Kelya,” the dulcet rumba that appropriately kicks off The Voice of Lightness, a marvelous Sterns anthology of Tabu Ley sides released between 1961 and 1977 – with volume two carrying us to 1993.

The first in a long series of professional splits occurred in 1963, when most of Kabasele’s band – including Rochereau and seminal Congolese guitarist “Dr. Nico” Kasanda – split in a financial huff and started their own band, African Fiesta, the best of whose increasingly exploratory Latin-tinged sounds can be heard on African Fiesta Volume I (1962-63) and Rochereau et l’African Fiesta 1968/69. Inspired first by traditional likembe thumb piano music, Dr. Nico took on a woozy Hawaiian steel guitar sound you can hear in “N’daya Paradis.” The guitarist left African Fiesta in ’65, but Tabu Ley had no problem finding suitable replacements, and went on to record much great music with suave lead guitarist Guvanu Vangu. Rochereau picked up some James Brown dance moves, began extending, hired Congolese music’s first traps drummer (Seskain Molenda), and enhanced the spectacle with his dancing Rocherettes.

Africa Fiesta offered a sophisticated urban alternative to the rootsier vibes of Tabu Ley’s longtime competitor and eventual partner, Congolese guitar giant Franco Luambo and his OK Jazz. Rochereau’s softer, more expressive voice made him particularly attractive to female listeners, while his increasingly dynamic soukous grooves, in which a balladic opening section introduced a longer rhythmic throwdown called a sebene, was moving both Venusian and Martian dancers. Zaire’s authoritarian president, Mobutu Sese Soko, dug his sound in a big way, too – although he suspended Africa Fiesta for three months in 1968, condemning the group’s late arrival at the presidential New Year’s Eve party as nothing less than “attempted sabotage of the artistic and cultural evening.”

Following a profile-raising 1970 appearance in Paris (reconstructed, complete with fake applause, on À l’Olympia (Paris) 1970), Tabu Ley shed several musicians and changed his band’s name to Afrisa International (he also temporarily dropped his own colonially tinged “Rochereau”). Tabu Ley continued to spread his love among different ethnic groups while inventing or borrowing whatever was moving fickle Zaireans. He lost momentum in 1977, when several bandmembers abandoned him for singer Sam Mangwana’s African All-Stars (as commented upon in “Ponce Pilate”) but regained his footing the following year when he installed an enhanced lineup at his Kinshasa club, Type K (a French-Spanish pun on tipica). Dr. Nico even returned to the fold briefly in 1980, resulting in the majestic “Ohambe” among other old-school delights.

Seeking a pretty face to co-front Afrisa, Seigneur (Lord) Rochereau, as he became known, anointed sweet-voiced Mbilia Bel in 1982. With Tabu Ley supplying her music, the 22-year-old became Africa’s preeminent female vocalist, thanks to terrific albums such as Eswi Yo Wapi (Where Did It Hurt You?). Another winner, “Mobali Na Ngai Wana” (This Husband of Mine) praised her mentor’s – and future husband’s – looks, wealth, and talent. Tabu Ley and Mbilia Bel separated in 1988, some time after the bandleader added singer Faya Tess to his ensemble. Tabu Ley once claimed to have fathered 69 children around the world and probably launched the careers of at least as many musicians.

After mourning the death of Le Grand Kalle together, Rochereau’s Parisian sessions with Franco in 1983 resulted in four albums. Lisanga Ya Banganga (Gathering of Healers) describes the highly unexpected nature of their collaboration (“We’re magicians!”), while “Lettre à Mr. le DG” delivered a scathing indictment Mobutu’s corrupt regime in a thinly disguised allegory. Like so many Congolese musicians, Tabu Ley moved to Paris to escape the economic catastrophe Zaire had become under Mobutu’s hand. Informed he wouldn’t be welcome back if he wished to return, Tabu Ley addressed his exile in “Exil-Ley” and “Le Glas a Sonné” (The Bell Has Tolled).

Rochereau lived in Los Angeles during the mid ’90s and returned to Zaire in 1997, where he helped form a political party, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. His musical career no doubt provided him a bonus political education; he has since served as a cabinet minister, member of parliament, and Vice-Governor of Kinshasa. In 2008 Tabu Ley Rochereau suffered a stroke from which he has recovered slowly, and remains one of the living legends of African popular music.