King of Soukous

An Adieu to Tabu Ley Rochereau, the master rumba singer-songwriter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

One of Tabu Ley Rochereau's album covers.

On November 30th, the “Baobab of Congolese Rumba” -Tabu Ley Rochereau  -passed away at the age of 73. He died in Brussels at l’Hôpital Saint-Luc from diabetic complications, having never fully recovered from a stroke he suffered in 2008. Since Saturday, musicians the likes of Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba; writers like Alain Mabanckou; Congolese politicians; Central and East African media outlets in particular; and innumerable fans have shown a huge outpouring of support for the musical legend and his family.

Born in Bagata, Bandundu in 1940 and growing up in what was then Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), Congo, Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu got his start in music as a young boy singing in church and school choirs. The story goes that his nickname “Rochereau” came about when his schoolmates teased him about being the only one in class able to recall the name of Franco-Prussian war hero Colonel Denfert-Rochereau. It was also during this time that rumba, whose etymology Tabu Ley would later point out lies in the Bantu word “kumba”, started making its way over the airwaves, on to wax, and back to the African continent. Tabu Ley absorbed these sounds, and at the ripe age of 15, he made his public debut performing his original composition “Besame Muchacha” at Leopoldville/Kinshasa’s football-sized Stade du 20 Mai, today Stade Tata-Raphaël. Much to the consternation of his parents, it placed him squarely on the Congolese musical map and caught the attention of Joseph “Le Grand Kallé” Kabasele, founder of the definitive Congolese rumba group L’African Jazz.

Le Grand Kallé, father of Congo/Zaire rumba, brought on Tabu Ley in 1956 to sing, write, and arrange pieces for the band, which at the time included such Afropop kingpins as Manu Dibango and Docteur Nico (Nicholas Kasanda). One of Tabu Ley’s many contributions was none other than “Besame Muchacha,” the very song he penned as a 14-year-old. He also recorded “Kelya,” a song that Kabasele wrote for him that further attracted audiences to his distinctive sound — a sweet, expressive voice that all but grazed the layers of lilting guitars beneath it:

Perhaps one of Tabu Ley’s most well known musical contributions to Congolese rumba was the introduction and incorporation of the Western drum kit. This became especially evident when he and Dr. Nico left L’African Jazz in 1963 to play together as the short-lived but successful band African Fiesta. The band comprised such influential musicians as Papa Wemba (later to form Zaiko Langa Langa) and Sam Mangwana (later to join rival band OK Jazz). When they disbanded just two years later, Dr. Nico kept the name African Fiesta, while Tabu Ley formed African Fiesta National.

It was the band that African Fiesta National evolved into that propelled Seigneur Rochereau, as he came to be known, to international renown. In 1968/9, Tabu Ley took Afrisa International on a six-month tour of Congo, Cameroon, and Côte d’Ivoire, ending in what became a legendary series of concerts at Paris’s Olympia Hall. It was there that he sped up the tempo of Congolese rumba and in so doing coined the term “soukous.” As he explained in a 1993 interview on Belgian public radio,

I was the first musician to bring this music to a big, global stage like Paris’s Olympia Hall. It was in 1970 before a completely white, European audience who understood not a single word of my language. So I had to put on a show, and in order to put on a show, the rhythm had to be animated. The rumba was really rather tepid, rather slow. I had to accelerate it. And in French, we say secouer to mean “to shake,” so secousse, which I Africanized and I called “soukous”. (Translated from French)

This would be the seed for an entire genre that would come to incorporate, varyingly, kwassa kwassa and zouk, and contribute to the birth of such musics as benga in Kenya and makossa in Cameroon, among countless others.

Throughout his 50-plus-year-long career, Tabu Ley never stopped innovating and keeping himself open to sounds from around the world. In the same 1993 interview cited above, he spoke of changing the more intellectual, refined feel of L’African Jazz to create something that could appeal more readily to the masses. In 1972 after a tour of Senegal, he came back with a new rhythm for rumba called “Soum djoum,” which some say was inspired by Soumbedioune, Dakar’s largest fish market. When Jimi Hendrix approached the man in London as a fan of Dr. Nico, they exchanged musical ideas, which led Tabu Ley to incorporate some of Hendrix’s guitar techniques into Afrisa International. He made a Lingala cover of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. He experimented with synths as a stand-in for likembe. He also created a hugely successful back-up dancer group “Les Rocherettes,” which included the sensual and honey-voiced Mbilia Bel who became an integral part of the Afrisa International sound. Here is some older footage of Mbilia Bel and Tabu Ley singing a cover of N’guashi Ntimbo’s “Shauri Yako”:

In fact, Mbilia and Tabu Ley grew so close as musical and romantic partners that they eventually got married in the mid-1980s. This perhaps came as little surprise, especially since Tabu Ley himself often cited love as one of the most important subjects of his music, whether familial or romantic, happy or bitter. One of Tabu Ley’s well-known songs to this day is “Sarah,” in which he addresses his ex-wife who divorced him while he was abroad on tour … with Mbilia. According to his son, popular French rapper Youssoupha, he may have fathered some 70-odd children from various women over the course of his life.

Love affairs aside, but not forgotten, Tabu Ley enjoyed great success with his band in the 1980s. He even partnered with Franco Luambo-Makiadi, rival Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinshasa Jazz (TP OK Jazz) leader, on a series of joint albums. This was a far cry from the mud slinging they’d both engaged in with each other in the 60s and 70s. With collaboration albums like L’Evenement and Choc Choc Choc, both released in 1983, Franco and Tabu Ley pushed soukous into a disco-inspired space. The two even created songs together in praise of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, though that particular endeavor didn’t last long.

As Mobutu’s massive acts of corruption and human rights violations worsened over the years, Tabu Ley began to write songs criticizing the nepotistic leader and the Zaïrian government. (In the wake of Zaïrianisation, Mobutu had reinstated Zaïre as the official name of the DRC.) And so in 1988, around the same time that Mbilia left to pursue her own solo career in France, Tabu Ley and members of Afrisa International decided too to leave, but for exile in the United States. They settled down in Los Angeles where they stayed for the next decade. Unfortunately, once Mbilia left Afrisa, the band’s popularity took a major hit, and Tabu Ley released new material far less frequently than before; nevertheless, he was still able to release several highly acclaimed albums, including Muzina (1996) and Africa Worldwide (1996).

In 1997, when Mobutu was overthrown in the First Congo War, Tabu Ley finally returned home to Kinshasa and, at the age of 57, launched the political leg of his long-standing service to Congo. He took up a position as cabinet minister under President Laurent Kabila and continued in this role under his predecessor President Joseph Kabila. Tabu Ley never stopped making music then or later in 2005 when he was given duties as vice-governor of Kinshasa.

It was only in 2008 that the King of Soukous moved to Paris where his family had immigrated years prior. He sought his family’s support and medical help for the stroke from which he would never truly recover. As if prescient, the twin capitals Kinshasa and Brazzaville held a months-long tribute to Tabu Ley just last year in 2012. The DRC’s Chancellor of National Orders honored the living legend with two gold medals — one for civic merit and the other for his deep cultural contributions to Congolese arts, sciences, and humanities. In November of 2013, he was admitted to l’Hôpital Saint-Luc in Brussels, where he spent his last days.

One of Africa’s most prolific and seminal artists and voices, Tabu Ley wrote and contributed to over 2000 songs on over 200 albums. Among those he is survived by are four of his sons who continue his legacy in music: Pegguy Tabu, Abel Tabu, Philémon, and Youssoupha.

Condolences from colleagues and friends of Tabu Ley, including those mentioned at the top of this article, can be listened to and read in the “Reactions” section of RFI’s coverage (in French).

Otherwise, we leave you with a clip of Seigneur Tabu Ley Rochereau in his prime (recorded at the 1974 Soul Power concert in Kinshasa), followed by an homage to Tabu Ley from his son Youssoupha.

Further Reading