Obituary: Pepe Kalle

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IN THE second half of the 1980s, Pepe Kalle, the "Elephant of Zaire", lumbered briefly across the world stage as one of the most popular international representatives of African popular music.

He was born Kabasele Yampanya, in Kinshasa, then still known by its Belgian colonial name of Leopold-ville, in 1951, when the territories of the Congo region were developing the genre known as Congolese rumba, a mixture of European and American church and popular music, a touch of jazz, a great deal of the then fashionable Latin American orchestration, and a spicing of local traditional rhythm and melody.

Because of its melodiousness, universally appealing rhythm and dynamism, and also because of the efficiency of its radio and record distribution in a continent then without a modern recorded music industry, Congolese popular music soon came to dominate the listening of the whole of Africa.

One of the founding fathers of Congolese rumba was Joseph Kabasele, "Le Grand Kalle", who had studied at St George's Catholic school in Kinshasa. The young Kabasele Yampanya attended the same school, acquired his early musical training in its choir, and adopted his eminent forerunner's name when he became a professional singer, Pepe Kalle.

Kalle gained early experience partnering the popular singer Nyboma in the Orchestra Bella Bella, then formed his own group, Africa Choc.

In the early 1970s, the newly independent Zaire, at the behest of President Mobutu, was revolutionised by the authenticity movement, replacing colonial culture and values with traditional African ones: suits and ties were out, African tunics in, mass renaming took place. Congolese rumba band leaders, spearheaded by the late great Franco, Africanised their music injecting more indigenous percussion and melody and using lyrics in Lingala, Zaire's majority language.

Combined with a multiple guitar front line and the inter-play between a lead singer and a chanting three- or four-part male chorus, this exciting new wave rumba, also known as soukous, redoubled its appeal throughout Africa. Kalle, his Africa Choc band renamed Empire Bakuba after "a Congolese tribe led by a huge and tall chieftain", was soon among its top practitioners.

Modern Zairian dance groups employ a number of devices to get audiences on their feet: animateurs shouting out the steps and catch phrases for the countless new dance crazes, dancers demonstrating them, spectacle of every sort.

Empire Bakuba featured the on-stage dancing duel between the 140-kilo colossus Kalle and his chief dancer Emauro, a dwarf, one of several Kalle employed. Other key members were the singer Pappy Tex and the obligatory trio of ace guitarists, in this case Elvis, Doris, and Boeing 737.

Empire Bakuba's heyday in the 1980s coincided with a surge of international interest in African music, of which Kalle took advantage. The group's 1987 hit, catch phrase and dance was "Massassi Calcule", which Kalle explained meant a finely calculated assault on the masses. "Since all the world wants to dance, we must make all the world dance," he remarked at the time.

A good deal of PepeKalle's later career was consequently spent in and out of Paris, hub of the Francophone African music business. He featured in two key African music films of the 1980s, Black Mic Mac and La Vie Est Belle, and released a British album in 1989, Pon Moun Paqa Bouge, on the Globe Style label, two years before making a successful UK debut at the Hammersmith Palais.

Philip Sweeney

Kadasele Yampanya (Pepe Kalle), singer: born Leopoldville, Zaire 30 December 1951; married (five children); died Kinshasa, Zaire 29 November 1998.