Tabu Ley Rochereau is indeed one of Africa’s most accomplished Singer/songwriter. But He will be remebered most for his creative drive and for his innovations which had a huge impact on Congolese as well as African music. He along with Dr Nico Kasanda is the inventor of Soukous , the dance mania that has swept the continent over the past two decades. He brought spectacle to the stage by introducing dancers clad in brilliant costumes to spice up his stages performances. This were later to be referred to as the Rochereaurettes. The Rochereaurettes wowed audiences across the globe during his concerts as the gyrated their bodies vigorously to Tabu Ley’s vibe.
He internationalized his music by fusing elements of Zairean(Congolese ) folk music with American soul , as well as Carribbean and Latin beats and instrumentation.
Today after producing more than 200 albums as well as composing over 1000 songs , Tabu Ley who has been dubbed the Sinatra of African music continues to wow audiences across the globe while continuing to sell thousands of CDs.
He was born in Bandundu, Zaire in 1940. He was educated up to secondary school level which was quiet an achievement in an era where most Zairean adults were illiterate. He earned his nickname Rochereau from schoolmates and later adopted it as his artistic name. At age 14 He wrote his first song Bessama Muchacha which he recorded with Joseph Kabassellehs’ L’Africa Jazz. Upon finishing high school he joined Africa Jazz as a full time musician. He sang the song ‘Independence cha cha’ which was composed by Kabaselleh when Congo was declared an Independent nation. The song was adopted by several countries as the national anthem thus propelling Tabu Ley to instant fame. His first song with Africa Jazz , ‘Kelia’ was a huge success.
In 1965 he and Docteur Nico Kasanda , left Africa jazz to form their own band which they called Africa Fiesta. Combining Tabu Ley’s abilities as a vocalist and as a compser as well as Dr Nico’s genius as a guitarist , Africa Fiesta wowed and charmed audiences in the late sixties. Later , He and Dr Nico parted ways and He formed his own band Africa Fiesta National which He later named Afrisa International. The band lasts to this day and has propelled him to even grater heights. Docteur Nico and his brother Dechaud formed a band which they named Africa Fiesta Sukisa.
In 1971 he became the first African to perform at the famous Olympia in Paris (Europe’s equivalent of Carnegie hall). The 1970s saw Afrisa International grow from strength to strength as Tabu Ley recruited other talented musicians such as Sam Mangwana , Dino Vangu and Modero Mekanisi. He showed his versatility by producing a rendition of the beatles’ song “Let it be”. He recruited reknown guitarist Mavatiku Visi known to most as Michelino to challenge Fiesta Sukisa’s more famous string section. Along with Franco’s TPOK Jazz , Afrisa was now Africa’s greatest band. Hits such as Sorozo , Kaful Mayay , Aon Aon and Mose Konzo which he produced with Sam Mangwana sent fans flocking to music stores to buy his music.
As the 70s gave way to the 80s Afrisa grew stronger as talented musician Kiesse Diambu Ya Ntesa joined along with honey toned vocalist Pon Pon Kuleta. Kiesse Diambu produced several hits such as Lumusu and the award winning Zuwa te. Kuleta displayed his vocal talents in songs such as Kashama and Omona wapi which also featured OK jazz vocalist Josky Kiambukuta and the guitar stringing genius of Michelino.The song which is one of Afrisa International’s greatest hits was composed by Modero Mekanisi. That album also contained 3 duets featuring Tabu ley and Franco. The first one was “Lisanga ya Banganga which means association of sorcerers( sorcerers of music). The second one was a tribute to Le Grande Kalle (Joseph Kabasselleh) who had just died. In the song Tabu Ley hailed Kabasselleh as his mentor. All three songs were composed by Tabu Ley.
Tabu Ley and his Rochereauttes continued to excite audiences across the globe with their spectacular stage performances culminating in a tour of Kenya in 1980 where he released his new hit “Maze”. The song was such a hit in Kenya that the word “Maze” was incorporated into the local sheng language ( the slang version of Kiswahili).
Come the mid 80s Tabu Ley discovered a young talented singer and dancer as she performed in the streets of Kinshasa. Mbilia Bel was her artistic name. She had the most heavenly soprano voice which left most of those who listened to her slow jams in tears of joy. She was equally adept at singing up tempo songs. Besides she was a talented dancer and stage performer and often joined the Rochereauttes in their dance routine thus spicing up Tabu Ley’s already famous stage show.
Come the mid 80s Tabu Ley discovered a young talented singer and dancer as she performed in the streets of Kinshasa. Mbilia Bel was her artistic name. She had the most heavenly soprano voice which left most of those who listened to her slow jams in tears of joy. She was equally adept at singing up tempo songs. Besides she was a talented dancer and stage performer and often joined the Rochereauttes in their dance routine thus spicing up Tabu Ley’s already famous stage show. Unlike many popular female performers in Western cultures, M’Bilia set the bar for classic beauty and elegance, and promoted more natural beauty rather than the popular beauty of breast reconstruction and breast implants. More importantly she sent sales of Afrisa albums into orbit , thus loosening if not undoing the stranglehold that TPOK Jazz had on the music market.
Tabu and Mbilia were a formidable duo
With the assistance of Tabu Ley she produced and sang several songs which became instant hits. The list includes Faux pas , Kamunga , Eswi yo wapi , Beyanga , Wendenda , Nadina etc etc. The biggest hit of all was probably “Mobali na Ngai wana (which means This husband of mine). In the song she lavished Tabu Ley with praises such as He is rich , handsome , gifted etc. Mbilia Bel became the first female singer to gain acclamation throughout Africa. Tabu Ley and Mbilia Bel later got married and had one child together. In 1988 Mbilia Bel and Tabu Ley parted ways. Both have been cagey about the circumstances that led to their divorce but rumour has it that Mbilia Bel was not amused at Tabu Ley’s introduction of another female vocalist known as Faya Tess. Mbilia Bel having left the band joined Paris based musician Rigo Makengo and has produced several albums with mixed success.
The rest of the Afrisa band including Kuleta and Modero were equally prolific in their productions such as Amilo and Sanza Misato Among others. (too bad I have never found these songs on CD). The band received a huge blow in the early 80s when Kiesse Diambu Defected over to TPOK Jazz to Join his brother Ntessa Dalienst. In 1985 when the Government of Kenya banned all foreign music from the National Radio service, Tabu Ley composed a song in praise of the president and the ban was lifted promptly. Yet another stroke of genius from Tabu Ley.
After Mbilia Bel’s departure however Afrisa’s influence along with that of their rivals TPOK Jazz continued to wane as fans gravitated toward the faster more diluted version of Soukous which only features the Sebene section. Tabu Ley continues to perform today.He has remained faithful to the version of Soukous which he invented. This version features 3 parts. A slower introductory part which builds up to a mid tempo harmony building section and finally to the searing release of the sebene .
In the 1990s he found success with the release of albums such as Muzina , Exil Ley , africa worldwide and and Babeti soukous. He briefly settled in southern California. His band Afrisa International was still going strong despite the fact that it had lost most of its pre-eminent stalwarts. Among the new members of the band included his son Tabu Etire as well as 2 Americans, instrumentalists Aaron Cross and Martin Flores. He is now beginning to tailor his music towards an International audience by including more English lyrics and by increasing more international dance styles such as Samba. His album Africa worlwide features some of his most sensational hits played to new dance styles.
When President Mobutu was dethroned in the late 90s, 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 continued in the same capacity under new President Joseph Kabila.
In 2006, Tabu Ley teamed up with long time counterpart, the versatile Maika Munan to release what would appear to be his last album. The album called ‘Tempelo” has several well arranged songs in his classic soukous. His daughter Melodie performs the R&B-inflected “Move Around,” as well as a duet with her father. called ‘Bebe’.
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