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Lagos, 1977. It is the year of the second international festival of African Arts and Culture, great event to which artists coming from all Africa and from the African world diaspora, took part. On the festivals’ stage hundreds of musicians like Miriam Makeba, les Ballets Africains, Osibisa, King Sunny Ade, Bembeya Jazz, TP Orchestre Polyrythmo, Steve Wonder, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Donald Byrd e Sun Ra Arkestra.
Zaire – todays’ Democratic Republic of Congo – was represented by Orchestra National du Zaire, wanted by president Mobutu Sese Seko and set up for the occasion by the band-leader, singer and composer Tabu Ley Rochereau starting from the well known rumba orchestra Afrisa International, with the participation of some singers from the group Zaiko Langa-Langa and the same ballets corps of Leyettes.
The moment Tabu Ley held the microphone and started singing, a persisting Lagos soukouss enthusiasm exploded. The public did not want them to leave and the Zaire orchestra’s performance lasted longer than expected, while women and men were wildly dancing on stage. This show impressed deeply the spectators and the Festival organizers like the Nigerian President Obasanjo who asked Tabu Ley to have another concert at the Governments house, to entertain a public made up of ministries, business men, dignitaries and foreign famous guests.
Tabu Ley Rochereau, the only one in his country able to compete with the Congolese rumba of Franco Luambo, winner of Festac 77, at the time in which his Afrisa International were in the best of their shape and success. But let us go back to the beginning of the story, which we will here tell as Sterns has just published the second volume in two CDs of a splendid monograph dedicated to Tabu Ley entitled The Voice of Lightness. What better occasion to go through the life and the music of this extraordinary Congolese artist, protagonist of a period so enthusiast, like the one immediately after independence.
Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou born in 1940 at Banningville, at the time Belgian Congo, but transferred with his family to the capital, Léopoldville when he was still a child. His father, hoping he would become a priest, sent him to study in a catholic institute, when soon he entered the chorus as singer. Pascal was good in school, and his knowledge of European history named him Rochereau, one of the French heroes during the Franco-Prussian war.
At sixteen Rochereau proposed some compositions to Joseph Kabsele, known as Grand Kallè, leader of African Jazz. The turn of his life happened two years later, in 1958. In the meantime he became singer of the group Rock-a-Mambo, but Kabesele decided to insert him in his band, which at the time was the most important rumba orchestra in Leopoldville.
The young guy took part in the African Jazz for five years, close to artists whom would have made the African history like the guitar player Nicolas Kasanda, who then became known as Dr. Nico, and the Cameroonese saxophone player Manu Dibango. His talent was not limited only singing, but also included the compositions and arrangements. Many of the songs written by him became the bands’ successes, but Rochereau was hardly given the role of solo singer. When this would happen the public would be astonished, caressed by the unmistakable melodic and warm voice. The mix of the vocals of Kabasele’s band soon became one of the Congolese capitals’ sweetness, and thanks to them the young Tabu Ley became a star.
The Voice of Lightness vol. 1 begins with those precious songs composed by Rochereau – Kelya, K.J: and Succès African Jazz – sang together with Grand Kallè, with Manu Dibango on sax and Dr. Nico Kasanda on guitar. Delicacy and elegance of those melodies and arrangements were since the beginning the distinctive characteristics of Rochereau’s sound, well distinct from the energy, raw and desecrating of the Ok Jazz of Franco.
In addition to the music, Gran Kallè – the father of Congolese rumba – was an intellectual and charismatic leader. He was known for his involvement in the war for liberation, as follower of Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese president made free. He also participated together with Congolese and Belgian politicians to the encounters which took place in Brussels in 1960, where independence was agreed to be established on 30 June of the same year. The famous song Independence Cha Cha was composed for this occasion.
t was due to his political explicit deployment that the assassination of Lumumba – in January 1961, few months after his election – pushed Gran Kallè in the position of political dissident towards the new ruling class – amongst whom Tshombè, Kasavubu, Ileo and Mobutu – and soon provoked the splitting up of African Jazz. The end of the historical orchestra happened in 1963 and coincided with the birth of a new band lead by Rochereau, the African Fiesta, where guitar players like Nico Kassanda and Dechaud Mwanba, the singer Roger Izeidi, the trumpet player Willy Kuntima and drum player Depuissant Kaya all participated, all coming from the African Jazz.
The African Fiesta was a wonderful union of "Seigneur" Rochereau and of "Docteur Nico", considered by everyone, then just like today, one of the greatest master of modern Congolese guitar. Two personalities which were too strong and ambitious for one single band, for this reason this combination didn’t last more than two years. After the separation, Dr. Nico nominated his new band African Fiesta Sukisa, while Rochereau called African Fiesta 66, later became National.
It was difficult to replace the melodic guitar of Kasandra but Tabu Ley’s art was growing together with his fame and Congolese talents were competing to play with him. The rumba was evolving in the footsteps of Ok Jazz and Fiesta of Rochereau. In 1967 the Fiesta National represented Congo at the Expo of Montreal. Upon his return, the band enlarged, strengthening the winds section and hiring Seskain Molenga as full time drum player. Soukouss – a changed word which comes from English word shake – was growing. Tabu Ley started recording songs that would last two sides of a 45, of which half song was a sebene – solo – on guitar introducing a change in rhythm to start the dances.An example of this new way of arranging rumba was represented by the song Mokitani ya Wendo. It was not Rochereau who invented soukouss, but he was certainly on the most enthusiastic interprets.
At the beginning of the 70ies, after the end of the civil war, Congo was living one of its most florid periods, both economically and culturally. Hundreds of rumba bands were crowding up the Kinshasa nights – the name give to Leopoldville by Mobutu – playing in bars where beer was served. Rochereau was a known star, he had various night clubs and a local discography label which produced young artists – amongst which the young band of Zaiko Langa-Langa, and he would often go play in Europe and USA.
In 1972, Mobutu changed the name of Congo to Zaire, and asked his compatriots to find themselves an African name. Rochereau made himself be called Tabu Ley, and renamed also his band, which at the time was Afrisa International. Success seemed never ending, and the competition with Franco became a game of continuous fugues and chases.
During the first half of the 70ies, the musicians who passed from Afisa International of Tabu Ley – some who were coming from or going to become Ok Jazz – were many, and the line-up of the orchestra was always changing. We must remember amongst those guitar player Lokossa Ya Mbongo, Dino Vangu, Bopol Mansiamina, Dizzy Madjeku and Michelino Mavatiku Visi, and the sax players Empompo Loway and Moder Mekanisi, the last one became director of the orchestra Afrisa starting in 1975. Mbanda Nayei was a model acoustic song of those years, where the mixing of the guitar of Michelino and the sax of Mekanisi brings music to become abstract, a level of perfection difficult to reach by other rumba ensembles.
In 1974 Afrisa played in the occasion of Rumble in the Jungle, the great concert that accompanied the meeting for the world title of heavy weight between Cassius Clay and George Foreman in Kinshasa. The other musicians who showed in this occasion were Franco, Zaiko Langa Langa, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz with Fania All Stars, B.B. King and James Brown. In 1977 arrived the success of the Festac of Lagos.
One of the songs that was played at Festac was Likambo ya Mokanda, with it’s powerful sound supported by the crazy riffs and winds by an unusual rhythms, almost afrobeat, played to homage Fela Kuti. The songs starts like a hymn to African unity and continues telling the story of a letter that was by mistake given to the wrong recipient, revealing a secret and giving scandal.
The listeners interpret it as a political allegory. Another song played at the Festac was Ekeseni, that in the Voice of Lightness is played in an original and acoustic version, with the fantastic guitars of Mandjeku and Mbongo and the sax of Mekenisi.
Afisa were in best shape, Tabu Ley would compose fluidly without comparison and would arrange his songs naturally. Rumba has taken an exotic taste of the origins together with it’s Cuban characteristics and had then become absolutely Congolese music, taking inspiration not only from the Latin rhythms and harmonies, but also from highlife, funk and traditional rhythms. Mere Ando – for example – proposes a traditional rhythm in 6/8 of the ethnic belonging to the region of low Congo.
Tabu Ley was shining while Mobutu’s Zaire’s was turning off. At the end of the 70ies the economic crisis was serious and the local disco production disappeared. But Afrisa were one of the shining stars of the African firmament and it could not leave without leaving behind an imprint on vinyl. During those years he recorded in Abidjan, Leopoldville and also in Cotonou. Sonodisc in France refused to produce him because he was not enough African and to help him an independent American label arrived, the Makossa.
It was in those difficult economically more than artistically years that Ley knew and launched the lady who would then be defined as one the great African music divas, who at that time was a dancer and chorus singer of 22 years: Mbilia Bel Dalla. Her first appearance with Afrisa, Bel was the star of the show, while her first song in duet with Tabu Ley obtained the first place in the top hits of the four countries.
Thanks to the success obtained with Mbilia Bel, Tabu Ley managed to sign off a contract with a label from Paris which worked together with the patronage of Sonodisc, Genidia with which the Afrisa recorded with for many years. In the same period also Franco and OK Jazz were in Paris, and it was then that a project was born between them, a project that nobody would hope for and which sounded rather incredible. Franco and Tabu Ley the two rivals would join to play together. Lisanga ya Banganga – healers Associations – the name of the group, which saw also Michelino on solo guitar, recorded four albums for a total of six LPs.
On 11 February of 1983 died in Kinshasa at the age of 53, Joseph Gan Kallè Kabaselè, master of Tabu Ley and father of modern Congolese rumba. Franco and Tabu Ley’s Lisanga recorded at the time Kabasele in Memoriam. “He never told us he was sick” cries Franco “If we would have known we would have left that place to be close to him.” “How will I ever pay back my debt to him?” echoes Tabu Ley “My tears will never be enough”.
Soon, the World Music phenomena exploded and together with it the interest of European and American listeners for African music. Tabu Ley was on tour in the US together with Afrisa and Mbilia Bel when the Shanacie proposed to publish his music. Soon after Bel gave birth to his daughter and Tabu Ley divorced from his wife Sarah. Afrisa’s show made of music and sensual dances charmed the whole world and gave Congolese soukouss the image of seducing and sensual music which is still today associated to.
Tabu Ley returned to Zaire. Until the fall of Mobutu, which was in 1997. Contrary to Franco’s ambivalence, he was always more explicitly distant from Mobutu’s politics, especially in the darkest moments of his tyranny and until his end. He felt exiled and in 1993 he published the album Exil-Ley where we find his political songs. Amongst those Le Glas a Sonnè, where Tabu Ley nominates one by one the Congolese politics and musicians from Patrice Lumumba to Joseph Kabsele from Franco Luambo to Moise Tsombe but he avoids mentioning the tyran Mobutu. In the song he expresses his disappointment for the lost occasion of the African leaders, once freed by the European tyranny, instead of serving Africa they fought against each other. This was happening in Congo and not only.
After Exil-Ley Tabu Ley has continued producing records professionally but without the energy of his best years. He returned to Kinshasa to rebuild the new Democratic Republic of Congo. He was parliamentarian, vice governor of Kinshasa and minister. In 2008 an ictus and a year of cures had definitely forced him to leave the scene and had signed the end of his public history.
We have said, Tabu Ley Rochereau was the only Congolese artist that had the courage to compete with the Giant Franco Luambo and his TPOK Jazz. If Franco was the one who best represented the heart and feelings of the Congolese people, Tabu Ley was the most creative amongst the composers and the most elegant to arrange music. If Franco was loved because of his absurd stories and satirical lyrics, funny and allusive, Tabu Ley inflamed the international music scene with his extraordinary show with his ballets and his orchestra.
But the comparison between the two giants of the Congolese rumba is a game that does not need to obscure the greatness of both of the artists and the role they played in rebuilding a Congolese independent identity. Both are part of the history of contemporary Africa and also for this reason, not only for their art, they deserve being listened and celebrated.
1. Keliya (African Jazz, 1962)
2. Tabalissimo /African Fiesta 1965)
3. Lily Mwana ya Quartier (African Fiesta 66, 1966)
4. Mokitani ya Wendo (African Fiesta National, 1968)
5. Mbanda Nayei (Afrisa International, 1975)
6. Likambo ya Mokanda (Orchestra National du Zaire, 1977)
7. Ekeseni (Afrisa International, 1977)
8. Mère Ando (Afrisa International, 1978)
9. Monsieur Malonga (Afrisa International, 1982)
10. Kabasele in Memoriam (con Franco, Lisanga ya Banganga, 1983)
11. Loyenghe(Afrisa international, 1884)
12. Le Glass a Sonné (Afrisa International, 1993)
Author: Tabu Ley Rochereau
Title: The Voice of Lightness
3. Succès African Jazz
4. Pesa Le Tout
5. Nalembi Nalembi
6. N'daya paradis
8. Mama Ida
9. Mireille Mwana
10. Mokolo Nakokufa
11. Savon Omo
12. Lily Mwana Ya Quartier
15. Ana Mokoy
16. Mokitani Ya Wendo
18. Songo+Songo = Songi-Songi
1. Aon Aon
2. Kimakango Mpe Libala
6. Kaful Mayay
7. Karibou Ya Bintou
8. Mbanda Nayei
9. Adeito (1 & 2)
11. Likambo Ya Mokanda
Author: Tabu Ley Rochereau
Title: The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2
2. Mere ando
3. Ponce pilate
6. Ma nono
7. Tanga tanga
8. Monsieur malonga
1. Kabasele in memoriam
2. Lisanga ya banganga
3. Michelle marina
6. Tu as dit que ...
9. Le glas a sonne