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.

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