rumba on the river

abetiTabu Ley "Rochereau," (Tabou, Pascal), pre-eminent Congolese singer, song writer, and band leader; born Bagata, Congo-Kinshasa, Nov. 13, 1940; died Brussels, Nov. 30, 2013.

Ley received his stage name before he ever reached the stage when he responded to a schoolteacher's question on French history with the correct answer, Pierre Denfert-Rochereau. In his youth Ley sang in church, entered singing competitions, and, near the end of secondary school, began to hang around the musicians of African Jazz. He cut his first record, "Micky Me Quiero" (Mickey loves me, in Spanish), at the Esengo studio in colonial Léopoldville (Kinshasa) in 1958 doing vocals on a song by Nino Malapet and the group Rock'a Mambo. A year later he made his debut with African Jazz singing second voice to the band's leader, Joseph Kabasele, at Léopoldville's famed Vis-à-Vis night club.

During the early sixties Ley began to exhibit his exceptional skills as a composer, contributing heavily to the band's repertoire of songs in the Congolese rumba style. "Kelya," "Bonbon Sucré" (sweet candy), "Succès African Jazz," and many others, often composed extemporaneously during marathon recording sessions in Brussels, secured his place in the band and earned him a following in his own right.

In 1963, all the musicians walked out on Kabasele and reformed as African Fiesta under the leadership of Ley, guitarist Docteur Nico, and maracas player Roger Izeidi. Apart from Kabasele, Ley emerged as the era's most extraordinary singer. His clear, elegant tenor extracted every ounce of emotion from the group's repertoire of love songs, usually sung in Lingala. "N'daya Paradis," about his love for a woman called N'daya; "Mwasi Abandaka" (it is the woman who starts); "Paquita," sung in Spanish; and "Pesa le Tout" (give everything), contributed to the growing legend of Rochereau.

Differences arose among African Fiesta's leaders in 1966. Docteur Nico took some of the musicians to form African Fiesta Sukisa. Ley and Izeidi regrouped as African Fiesta 66, later African Fiesta National. The hits kept coming for Ley with "Mokolo Nakokufa" (the day I die) and "Toyota," a song about Kinshasa's newest status symbol, among his best. Ley took complete control of the band in 1969 when he forced Izeidi out.

The Congolese rumba had enjoyed more than a decade as Africa's most popular music, but it was little known outside the continent. Ley changed that in 1970 with two shows at the Olympia concert hall in Paris, performances that many Congolese regard as their music's breakthrough to the rest of the world. Shortly afterward Ley changed the band's name to Afrisa, and when Congo-Kinshasa, then known as Zaire, embarked on its program of authenticity, he adopted the name Tabu Ley.

Ley preferred the "show style" of performance he had employed at the Olympia, and he began using it with good results at home in the early seventies by staging lavish concerts in Kinshasa's best halls. His hit songs of the period included "Kaful Mayay" (go ask Mayay), about the perils of arranged marriage, and "Karibou ya Bintou" (welcome to Bintou). Ley opened a night club called the Type K in 1976 and served as president of SONECA, Congo-Kinshasa's (Zaire) performing rights society, beginning in 1977.

Ley had a knack for revamping his group to maintain its popularity. He had always enjoyed the presence of a woman in the band—Photas Myosotis and Henriette "Miss Bora" Borauzima being two notable collaborators—and in 1981 he launched a bombshell in the person of Mbilia Bel. In that era marked by the country's precipitous economic decline, a concert with Ley and Mbilia Bel at the mike would still sell out. Ley also recorded the albums Choc Choc Choc 1983 and L'Evenement with Franco, his chief rival and leader of O.K. Jazz, during this period.

Mbilia Bel quit the band at the end of 1987. Ley replaced her with Faya Tess and kept pumping out the records. As the country's economy lay in ruins, unable to support an entertainment industry any longer, Ley and Afrisa spent most of their time in Paris or on tour. Ley moved a smaller version of the group to the United States in 1994 where he recorded two albums, Muzina and Africa Worldwide, for Rounder. The musicians played concerts around the U.S. for nearly two years before finally breaking up. Ley recorded again in Paris using Congolese session musicians, then returned home to Kinshasa to launch a new career in politics. He served in the Congolese government in various capacities until he suffered a debilitating stroke in July of 2008. He was flown to Belgium for treatment and convalescence and then moved on to France to live in what increasingly looked like retirement.

Congo finally got around to honoring Ley in November of 2012. In a Kinshasa ceremony the great musician, wheel chair bound and looking enfeebled, was presented with a number of certificates and medals commemorating his life and career as a crowd of dignitaries and wellwishers looked on. He died one year later at a Brussels hospital.

Tabu Ley ranks as one of the twentieth century's greatest African singers. He surpassed his mentor, Joseph Kabasele, as Congolese music's leading voice and became one of its most prolific composers, rivaled only by Franco and another O.K. Jazz member, Simaro Lutumba. Ley also enjoyed phenomenal success as a band leader; Afrisa and its earlier incarnations spanned four decades. He left a legacy few can match.
© 2011 and 2013 Gary Stewart

Career Retrospective: Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness (Stern's STCD3027-28) 2007.
Solo: Tempelo (Next Music CDS8989) 2003—perhaps his final recording.
With African Jazz: Merveilles du Passé (Sonodisc CD36503) sixties recordings reissued 1991; Grand Kalle & L'African Jazz vol. 1 (Sonodisc CD36579) sixties recordings reissued 1997; Grand Kalle & L'African Jazz vol. 2 (Sonodisc CD36582) sixties recordings reissued 1997.
With African Fiesta: Sangana (Sonodisc CD36578) sixties recordings reissued 1997; N'daya Paradis (Sonodisc CD36580) sixties recordings reissued 1997.
With African Fiesta National: Le Seigneur Rochereau (Sonodisc CD36515) sixties recordings reissued 1992; Rochereau & l'African Fiesta National (Sonodisc CD36525) sixties recordings reissued 1993; Rochereau & l'African Fiesta [National] (Sonodisc CD36549) sixties recordings reissued 1995.
With Afrisa: Rochereau & l'Afrisa International (Sonodisc CD36542) seventies recordings reissued 1994; Rochereau L'Afrisa International Sonodisc CD36544) seventies recordings reissued 1995; Tabu Ley "Rochereau" (Sonodisc 36552) seventies recordings reissued 1995; Faux-Pas (with Mbilia Bel, Genidia GENCD1031) eighties recordings reissued 1996; Bel Ley (with Mbilia Bel, Kaluila KL0177) eighties recordings reissued 1998; Tabu Ley Rochereau & L'Afrisa International (Sonodisc CD36594) seventies recordings reissued 1998; Exil-Ley (Genidia CD92019) 1993; Muzina (Rounder CD5059) 1994.
With Franco: Lettre à Monsieur le Directeur-Général (originally Choc Choc Choc 1983, Sonodisc CDS6857) reissue 1994; Omona Wapi (originally L'Evénement, Shanachie 43024) reissue 1991.

M. Lonoh, Essai de commentaire sur la musique congolaise moderne (Kinshasa, 1969); S. Bemba, 50 ans de musique du Congo-Zaire (Paris, 1984); C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); Manda Tchebwa, Terre de la chanson (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 1996); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000).

Watch rare footage of Docteur Nico performing with Tabu Ley: