Tabu Ley Rochereau Dies; Spread the Sound of Soukous
By JON PARELES
Published: December 7, 2013
Tabu Ley Rochereau, a Congolese singer, songwriter and bandleader whose music spread across Africa and the world, died on Nov. 30 in Brussels.
Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos
His son Marc Tabu confirmed the death on his Facebook page. Mr. Tabu, who was 73 or 76 — sources differ — had never fully recovered from a stroke in 2008.
Mr. Tabu’s voice, a high tenor, was always sweetly urbane, whether he was singing of love, his Christian beliefs or social issues. From the 1960s into the ’90s, he led one of the two top bands playing soukous, the Congolese rumba that became popular across Africa. He wrote and recorded thousands of songs, and as a bandleader and arranger he widely expanded the sound of soukous, infusing it with both local African rhythms and elements of international pop.
Soukous is an African reclamation and reinvention of Afro-Cuban music, particularly the son and the rumba, with gentler, smoother harmony singing and endlessly entwining guitar lines. Mr. Tabu’s band, Orchestre Afrisa International, was rivaled only by Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz, led by the guitarist Franco. (Franco, whose last name was Luambo, died in 1989.)
The contrast between their approaches has been compared to that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with Mr. Tabu more suave, Franco more aggressive. But the two rivals also collaborated at times on albums like “Omona Wapi.” The best introduction to Tabu Ley Rochereau’s career is found on two two-CD anthologies: “The Voice of Lightness, 1961-1977” and “The Voice of Lightness, Vol. 2,” both on the Sterns label.
Tabu Ley Rochereau was born Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou in what was then the Belgian Congo. He went by simply Rochereau, a school nickname, when he sent his first songs to Joseph Kabasele, the leader of the pioneering Congolese rumba band Orchestre African Jazz. He made his first recordings with another band, Rock-a-Mambo, in 1958, but had his first hit, “Kelya,” after he joined African Jazz in 1959, singing harmony with Mr. Kabasele’s lead. (Mr. Kabasele died in 1983.)
As the 1960s began, Rochereau wrote many hits for African Jazz when it was Congo’s top band. But in 1963, he took five members of African Jazz with him to start his own band, African Fiesta.
Congo, which had become an independent state in 1960, sent African Fiesta to Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, where Rochereau soaked up North American rock and soul; he added a trap drum kit to his band. Three years later he took African Fiesta to Paris to perform, and in 1972 he made an album in London; the band soon became Afrisa International. After the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko changed Congo’s name to Zaire in 1971 and called for the nation to reclaim African “authenticité” from colonial influences, Rochereau renamed himself Tabu Ley Rochereau.
Afrisa International was a sensation across Africa in the 1970s. Mr. Tabu had his own label, Isa, and his own club, Type K, in Kinshasa, Zaire’s capital. In 1981, he discovered a 22-year-old singer, Mbilia Bel, who joined his band and turned his songs into Zaire’s top hits. They also had a child together, Melody.
As Zaire’s government grew more dictatorial and the country’s economy foundered, Mr. Tabu took the band abroad for long stretches. By the end of the 1980s Afrisa International was touring Europe, Africa and North and South America.
The band was based in Paris when riots shook Kinshasa in 1991, and Mr. Tabu told a journalist he would not return to Zaire until conditions improved. A government spokesman responded that he would be unwelcome.
While in Paris, Mr. Tabu recorded the album “Exil-Ley,” which contained his most directly political song, “Le Glas a Sonné” (“The Bell Has Tolled”). “We won independence to lift up our people/But our own leaders fought among themselves,” he sang. “Grabbing what they could, ignoring the people./Now the country is ruined.”
In 1994, Afrisa International moved to the United States, where it toured clubs and festivals and added English lyrics to its songs. But after Mr. Mobutu was ousted in 1997, Mr. Tabu returned to his native country, which had been renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, and plunged into politics.
He was a founder of the Congolese Rally for Democracy party, and he became a cabinet minister, a member of parliament and vice governor of the city of Kinshasa while continuing a reduced recording career. He was in Kinshasa when his stroke debilitated him in 2008, and he was moved to Brussels for medical care.
Among his many surviving children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are, besides his son Marc, four sons who became musicians: Pegguy Tabu, Abel Tabu, Philemon and the French rapper Youssoupha Mabiki, who sampled his father’s music on a 2012 single, “Les Disques de Mon Père.”
Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu (b. November 13, 1937 – d. November 30, 2013), better known as Tabu Ley Rochereau, was a leading African rumba singer-songwriter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was the leader of Orchestre Afrisa International, as well as one of Africa's most influential vocalists and prolific songwriters. Along with guitarist Dr. Nico Kasanda, Tabu Ley pioneered soukous (African rumba) and internationalized his music by fusing elements of Congolese folk music with Cuban, Caribbean and Latin American rumba. He has been described as "the Congolese personality who, along with [the dictator] Mobutu, [most] marked Africa's 20th century history." He was dubbed the "African Elvis" by the Los Angeles Times. After the fall of the Mobutu regime, Tabu Ley also pursued a political career.
During his career, Tabu Ley composed up to 3,000 songs and produced 250 albums.
Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu was born in Bagata, in the then Belgian Congo. His musical career took off in 1956 when he sung with Joseph "Le Grand Kallé" Kabasele, and his band L'African Jazz. After finishing high school he joined the band as a full-time musician. Tabu Ley sang in the pan-African hit Indépendance Cha Cha which was composed by Grand Kallé for Congolese independence from Belgium in 1960, propelling Tabu Ley to instant fame. He remained with African Jazz until 1963 when he and Dr. Nico Kasanda formed their own group, African Fiesta. Two years later, Tabu Ley and Dr. Nico split and Tabu Ley formed African Fiesta National, also known as African Fiesta Flash. The group became one of the most successful bands in African history, recording African classics like Afrika Mokili Mobimba, and surpassing record sales of one million copies by 1970. Papa Wemba and Sam Mangwana were among the many influential musicians that were part of the group. He adopted the stage name "Rochereau" after the French General Pierre Denfert-Rochereau, whose name he liked and whom he had studied in school.
In 1970, Tabu Ley formed Orchestre Afrisa International, Afrisa being a combination of Africa and Éditions Isa, his record label. Along with Franco Luambo's TPOK Jazz, Afrisa was now one of Africa's greatest bands. They recorded hits such as "Sorozo", "Kaful Mayay", "Aon Aon", and "Mose Konzo".
In the mid 1980s, Tabu Ley discovered a young talented singer and dancer, M'bilia Bel, who helped popularize his band further. M'bilia Bel became the first female soukous singer to gain acclaim throughout Africa. Tabu Ley and M'bilia Bel later married and had one child together. In 1988, Tabu Ley introduced another female vocalist known as Faya Tess, and M'bilia Bel left and continued to be successful on her own. After M'bilia Bel's departure, Afrisa's influence along with that of their rivals TPOK Jazz continued to wane as fans gravitated toward the faster version of soukous.
After the establishment of the Mobutu Sese Seko regime in the Congo, Tabu Ley adopted the name "Tabu Ley" as part of Mobutu's "Zairization" of the country, but later went into exile in France in 1988. In 1985, the Government of Kenya banned all foreign music from the National Radio service. After Tabu Ley composed the song "Twende Nairobi" ("Let's go to Nairobi"), sung by M'bilia Bel, in praise of Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, the ban was promptly lifted. In the early 1990s, Tabu Ley briefly settled in Southern California. He began to tailor his music towards an international audience by including more English lyrics and by increasing more international dance styles such as Samba. He found success with the release of albums such as Muzina, Exil Ley, Africa worldwide and Babeti soukous. The Mobutu regime banned his 1990 album "Trop, C'est Trop" as subversive. In 1996, Tabu Ley participated in the album Gombo Salsa by the salsa music project Africando. The song "Paquita" from that album is a remake of a song that he recorded in the late 1960s with African Fiesta.
When President Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed in 1997, Tabu Ley returned to Kinshasa and took up a position as a cabinet minister in the government of new President Laurent Kabila. Following Kabila's death, Tabu Ley then joined the appointed transitional parliament created by Joseph Kabila, until it was dissolved following the establishment of the inclusive transitional institutions. In November 2005 Tabu Ley was appointed Vice-Governor of Kinshasa, a position devolved to his party, the Congolese Rally for Democracy by the 2002 peace agreements. He also served as provincial minister of culture. He was said to have fathered up to 68 children, including the French rapper Youssoupha, with different women.
Tabu Ley Rochereau died on November 30, 2013, aged 76, at Saint-Luc hospital in Brussels, Belgium where he had been undergoing treatment for a stroke he suffered in 2008.
During his lifetime, Tabu Ley Rochereau received the following awards:
During his lifetime, Tabu Ley Rochereau received the following awards:
- Honorary Knight of Senegal
- Officer of the National Order, the Republic of Chad