Tabu Ley Rochereau, a giant in the rarified world of Congolese rumba, has, in the words of Hamlet, shuffled off this mortal coil. He was 73. Born 1940 in Banningville, a small village in the western Congolese province of Bandundu, he was raised in the colonial capitol, Leopoldville, named after the Belgian ruler who pillaged the country (the book King Leopold’s Ghost tells the story of this). His father was a riverboat mechanic and hoped his son would become a priest. But the young singer was entranced by music, both French chanteurs, as well as, Cuban soneros. Rochereau rose to stardom in the 1960s, first as a young singer in Joseph Kabasele’s African Fiesta band, one of the first bands to fuse Cuban music with Congolese styles. He sang in Lingala, a Congolese dialect, as well as in French and in a pigeon Spanish that he mostly invented just to sound more Cuban.
His birth name was Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou. Because he was the only person in his school who could correctly identify the French hero of the Franco-Prussian War (Colonel Pierre Denfert-Rochereau), he took the surname Rochereau as a nick name and it stuck.
His rise to stardom coincided with the independence of Congo from years of Belgian rule in 1960, which fueled joyous songs of liberation that he became famous for, such as “Independence Cha-Cha“. He was to become a superstar in Congo and all of West Africa, as well as in Paris and Brussels, or wherever Congolese lived. He was a staple on KCRW’s African programs 1980-1992 as well. I saw him once at a now defunct but amazing club called Luna Park, where he played with his 1990’s band, L’Africa International.
Ned Sublette, poet, historian, and musician, paraphrased Joseph Conrad (author of Heart of Darkness), calling Rochereau “The Voice of Lightness”.
The best CD collections, ones which cover his rich career, are The Voice of Lightness (with African Jazz, African Fiesta, Afrisa International and Onaza), Congolese Classics 1961-1977, and The Voice of Lightness Vol 2, Congo Classics 1977-1993. Also, a superb 2 CD set with a 100 page booklet filled with history, pictures, album covers, etc., has just been issued by Stern’s Music for Joseph Kabasele. Tabu Ley is featured prominently in these rumba classics. It is absolutely a must-have.
Here is a great youtube video of Joseph Kabasele’s classic “Independence Cha Cha” with historical images of the first democratically elected president of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, during his tragically short presidency (he was assassinated in 1961 after being elected in 1960). The 32-year kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko followed. Like King Leopold, he again robbed the country of priceless wealth with palaces, planes, and luxury villas in Southern France.
Here is another joyous independence-themed song of the period, African Fiesta’s “Table Ronde” (referring to the negotiations for Congolese independence).
Here is footage from a fairly recent concert, filmed in Brussels.