Tabu Ley Rochereau: Singer and songwriter who championed Congolese rumba then went on to serve as a cabinet minister

 

In a career spanning half a century, Tabu Ley Rochereau did as much as, or more than, any other musician to popularise rumba Congolaise ("Congolese rumba"), expanding its format and stylistic palette by fusing it with other forms of popular music, enriching its arrangements and broadening the scope of its lyrics.

Whether these concerned his Christian faith, affairs of the heart or made philosophical or veiled political points, he sang in a sweet, supple tenor that earned him the sobriquet "the voice of lightness" and possibly established the ongoing vogue for tenor vocals in Congolese music. Only his main rival, Franco (with whom he occasionally collaborated), had as much clout, with his group T.P.O.K. Jazz.

On extensive tours with his sometimes 20-piece orchestra, Afrisa International, Tabu Ley took rumba Congolaise (or rather, its more danceable, modern form, soukous) to many African nations outside the country known for most of his professional life as Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to make it the most influential African music of all. Dancing as well as singing (once unusual for Congolese artists), he was often described as "the African Elvis". A prolific and accomplished songwriter, he recorded around 250 albums, some of which gained US or UK release.

He was born in the small river-port town of Banningville in 1940, after which he was raised in the Congo's political and musical capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). His father was a river-boat mechanic who wanted him to become a priest; while attending church he picked up some of his early musical influences, and also absorbed his parents' ethnic Yansi music, that of French chanteurs, and Cuban son. He started singing in church and school choirs, and entered singing competitions. As a youth he began writing songs in Lingala, French, and his own invented nonsense language.

By the time he was ready to send some examples of his first songwriting efforts to Joseph "Kalle" Kabasele, the leader of Orchestre African Jazz, then the top band in Kinshasa, he was calling himself "Rochereau", a name he took from Colonel Pierre Denfert-Rochereau, a hero of the Franco-Prussian War. (Only in 1972, after the Congolese dictator Mobutu introduced his "national authenticité" programme did the "Tabu Ley" stage name arrive; the family name, Tabou, lost its French influence, becoming Africanised to Tabu, and he added "Ley" in honour of one of his grandfathers.

In 1958, Kabasele was impressed enough to offer Rochereau a position as a harmony/backing singer in his group, and soon made good use of his songwriting skills. He made his recording debut with another Kinshasa-based group, Rock-A-Mambo, the same year, but scored his first hit, "Kelya", with Orchestre African Jazz. He was soon routinely writing hits for Kabasele, to the extent that by 1959, at the age of 19, he became the director of Orchestre African Jazz.

The following year Kabasele scored his biggest hit with "Independence Cha Cha", which became a rallying call to the wave of emancipation from colonial rule then sweeping through Africa. Orchestre African Jazz were Kinshasa's leading band by 1963, when Rochereau left, taking five members with him to form the group African Fiesta Nationale, including the guitarist Nico Kasanda, whom he gave the enduring stage name Dr Nico.

By the close of 1965 African Fiesta Nationale had split, with Nico's half becoming African Fiesta Sukisa and Rochereau's African Fiesta 66. In 1967, by which time they had become African Fiesta Nationale, they were chosen to represent Congo at the World's Fair in Montreal, where Rochereau soaked up American soul influences from watching television.

By 1970, Rochereau's band had become Afrisa International. They completed a sensational 26-night run at the Paris Olympia in 1970, then made their UK debut at the London Palladium and toured the US, where Rochereau settled briefly in the early 1970s. In that decade and the following, as the Mobutu regime became increasingly repressive, Rochereau spent long periods outside Congo.

Rochereau's international profile was significantly boosted by the release of the compilation Rochereau featuring M'Bilia Bel (Shanachie, 1984). In 1988 he appeared at the Womad Festival and London's (then) Town & Country Club, while Sterns released two LPs and Realworld issued Babeti Soukous.

After being forced to flee Kinshasa again in 1997, Rochereau returned to serve in various government positions, including that cabinet minister for the Kabila government. In 1996 the popular African salsa project band Africando covered his song "Paquita" on their Gombo Salsa album, and he contributed a guest vocal. His career came to an end in 2008, when a severe stroke disabled him. In 2010 the label Sterns Africa released the acclaimed four-disc anthology The Voice Of Lightness, which covered his career between and 1993.

JON LUSK

Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu (Tabu Ley Rochereau), singer and songwriter: born Banningville, Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) 13 November 1940; died Brussels 30 November 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
News
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Recruitment Genius: Appointment Maker / Telesales

£15000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading supplie...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project