He was called by his fans “the baobab of Congolese rumba”, and no title could be more appropriate for Tabu Ley, also known since his school years as ‘Rochereau’. Deeply rooted in the musical tradition of his country, the present day DRC, this legend of the African music scene passed away on 30 January, 2013: during his 50 year-long career, he was able to leave a contribution as majestic and long-lasting as the giant tree which is a symbol of Africa. Since 1959 he authored more than 2000 (and some say as many as 3000) songs and his fame crossed the borders of his native country and continent. With one of the bands he led, Afrisa International, he also toured Europe, North and South America, from the end of the 1980s.
As only great artists can do, he was able to take a musical genre of his homeland, the ‘Congolese rumba’ (known under this name for its mixture of local and Afro-Cuban influences) and innovate it, for instance through the introduction of the western-style drum kit and of a new accelerated rhythm, which he himself called soukous (an africanization of the French word secouer, which means ‘to shake’). This transformation dates back to the late Sixties, when Rochereau and Afrisa International had the opportunity to perform at the renowned Olympia music hall in Paris and it was not Tabu Ley’s first contribution to the history of African music.
Some ten years before, in fact, he had joined the so-called ‘father’ of Congolese rumba, Joseph Kabasele – also called ‘Le Grand Kallé’ – and his African Jazz orchestra, a true breeding ground for future African music stars: at that time, its lineup included, among others, the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango and the Congolese guitarist Docteur Nico (Nicholas Kasanda). Kasanda and Rochereau then left the orchestra in order to found a band known as African Fiesta, but before that they contributed to the success of the most celebrated among Kabasele’s hits: Independance Cha Cha, which was to become a symbolic ‘anthem’ for all the nations in the continent struggling for freedom.
The African Fiesta experience was short-lived: Docteur Nico and Rochereau parted their ways; but in a few years the latter, as the lead singer of the newly-established African Fiesta International and then of Afrisa International, was able to reach the top of the hit parades. He mainly sung in Lingala, but he also used French, English and Spanish. In those times he rivaled another Congolese rumba ‘master’, Franco Luambo, and his Ok Jazz group. Some Western music critics compared the contrast between them to that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Rochereau’s (who actually made a Lingala cover of Let It Be) style being softer than Luambo’s. This did not prevent the two Congolese super-stars from authoring a series of joint albums. Years later, asked for a comment on Luambo’s death, Tabu Ley credited his fellow countryman with “divine qualities” with regard to his charisma and artistic expression.
The two singers shared some sort of political commitment too, and composed songs in order to raise attention about serious social and political issues, as was the case for Luambo’s Attention Na Sida and Rochereau’s Le Glas a sonné (‘The bell tolled’). The latter was recorded in Paris in 1991, in an album carrying the emblematic title of Exil-Ley (a play of words on the singer’s name and the same-sounding French word for ‘exiled’). “Grabbing what they could, ignoring the people./Now the country is ruined”, the text read, in reference to the ruling politicians. This was Rochereau’s ultimate distancing from Zaire’s then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko: in earlier years he had composed – together with Luambo – songs in praise of him, but he had also had some problems with the authorities because of his song Mokolo Nakokufa (‘The day I will die’), which some people thought made reference to a spate of political executions.
He was forced to live outside Congo from 1991 to 1997: in those years he performed both in France and in the USA, with the highly recognizable style he elaborated in the previous years, during his spectacular shows, which included fanfare introduction, horn arrangements and choreographies. In doing this, he always went beyond the traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms and the style of his own mentor, Kabasele. This is why Ray Lema, one of the many musicians that worked with him, prefers to call Rochereau and Franco, rather than the Africa Jazz bandleader, the true “founding fathers of Congolese music”. Tabu Ley, according to Lema, expressed the “melodic vein” of this genre at his best, while Franco did the same with the ‘groove’ and the younger generation of Congolese musicians “has bridged the gap” between these two schools.
The importance of Rochereau for the Congolese musical scene, was also underlined during the state funeral that was celebrated in early December. Speaking at the service, popular rumba musician Koffi Olomidé called Tabu Ley “our master, our guide and our father” who “was and will forever be the pride of the Congolese nation”. Olomide also asked Congolese president Joseph Kabila (who, as his father Laurent-Desiré before him, appointed the singer to some political posts since his homecoming in 1997) to establish a “national day for Congolese rumba and Congolese musicians” to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of Rochereau’s death. Even if in the end such an official recognition did not come, the ‘Baobab’ of Africa’s heritage lives on in many Africans of all ages, inside and outside DRC, who mourned him. He will also be remembered by the many musicians who have sampled his songs in their albums, including his son Youssupha Mabiki, a French rapper: one of the four (out of at least 49) children who decided to follow their father’s artistic path. (D.M.)