Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou
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Seigneur Rochereau
Ken Braun remembers the voice of lightness.

“Whether he will be called Rochereau, Tabu Ley or Pascal Tabou, his name will be writ large in the history of Congolese music, of world music, of modern music.” I wrote that prediction in 2007 for the first volume of a retrospective of Seigneur Rochereau's 44-year recording career. Now those histories can be written. The great man died on November 30th, 2013 at the age of 73.

Pascal Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabou was the name his parents bestowed on him when he was born on November 13th, 1940, in the Bandundu region of the Belgian Congo. After the family moved to the colonial capital, Léopoldville, Pascal's classmates gave him the nickname Rochereau. That was how he was billed when he made his record debut with one of the seminal Congolese rumba bands, Rock-a-Mambo, in 1958, and when he advanced, a year later, to the pre-eminent band in the Congo, Kallé Kabasele's Orchestre African Jazz. A preternaturally talented songwriter still in his teens, Rochereau crafted hits like “Kelya” and “KJ” for African Jazz and soon shared the spotlight with the Grand Kallé, singing harmonies and the occasional lead in recordings and on stages around Africa as the continent, country by country, won its independence and embraced Congolese rumba as the new pan-African sound.

However, it was after he left Kallé in 1963 that Rochereau became a star. He and other former members of African Jazz — most notably guitarists Dechaud Mwamba and Nico Kasanda — formed a band called African Fiesta. While sustaining the Cuban styles that had inspired Congolese rumba from the start, African Fiesta also circled back to the local antecedents of those Cuban developments and instantly modernized traditional songs and dances in less Latinate ways right where they had originated. At the same time, this band explored musical currents in other parts of the world as well. Rochereau was especially drawn to French chanson, American soul music and the Beatles, and quickly progressed from cooking up self-assured imitations to cultivating beautiful hybrids.

Even after Dechaud and Dr. Nico left the group — or maybe because they left, freeing Rochereau to lead his band wherever he wanted to go — he continued to raise both his capability and his popularity. His adult voice was a sensuously soft, light tenor that never had to strain for effect. At once a fluent melodist and a lyricist whose listeners remembered his words, Rochereau could turn out any number of irresistible dance hits and also write, with equal acuity and efficacy, songs like “Mokolo Nakokufa” (ruminations on death) and “Savon Omo” (a rhapsody on a brand of laundry soap).

He intended his music to be heard everywhere. He took African Fiesta National to the Montreal World's Fair in 1967 and a bigger band, Afrisa International, to the Paris Olympia in 1970 and the London Palladium two years later. Abroad, he was well-received but ahead of his time; the global awakening to contemporary African music was still a decade away. Until then, he would continue to make his strongest impact in Africa. Back in Kinshasa, Zaire (formerly Léopoldville, Congo) and self-renamed Tabu Ley, he and his biggest band yet, complete with dancing Leyettes, performed in front of a stadium full of hometown fans, international jetsetters and — most enticingly for him — American filmmakers at the music festival staged in conjunction with the Rumble in the Jungle, the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight for the heavyweight crown in 1974. As the 2009 documentary Soul Power! confirms, he stole the show from his great rival, Franco, and from Miriam Makeba, B.B. King, and the Fania All-Stars (at their peak with Celia Cruz), and gave headliner James Brown a run for the money. The Leyettes were arrested for public indecency and Tabu had to appeal to muckety-mucks in Zairean President Mobutu's inner circle to spring them from jail, but all in all the show was a spectacular success.

Citizen Tabu was more scrupulous or at least smarter than many other Zairean pop stars about accepting favors from Mobutu, but he took care not to provoke the dictator's dangerous ire. When Mobutu appointed him to represent Zaire at the 1977 Festival of African Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, he complied. Tens of thousands of locals and visitors from around the African diaspora crowded into a public square in the city center to see and hear Tabu Ley with the Orchestre National du Zaire, and reports of the show led to a command performance before the Nigerian head of state and foreign dignitaries. In an epoch of great cultural ferment, Tabu Ley made some of the most innovative and influential music in Africa.

Of course a great deal of Tabu's success was due to the people who made music with him. He was an astute talent scout and a bandleader who brought out the best in his accompanists. His saxophonists, especially Empompo Loway and Modero Mekanisi, were adept arrangers as well. His guitarists included such virtuosos as Michelino Mavatiku Visi, Dizzy Mandjeku and Dino Vangu. He launched singer Sam Mangwana on his trajectory, watched him arc away, and caught him on a rebound a few years later. When it was the doctor, Nico, who needed care, Tabu revived his career. He competed vigorously with other bandleaders and lost as many good sidemen as he gained, but he was a gentleman who never let a grudge last long. He not only made friends with his archrival, Franco, he made four albums with him, highlights of both men's extraordinary oeuvres. And in 1981 he spotted a chorus-line singer and dancer and turned her into Mbilia Bel, the most radiant African female star of the decade and the most popular.

This time he was in sync with the world; people around the globe now thrilled to African pop. Tabu Ley licensed his recordings to foreign labels and followed through by taking Bel and the band on heralded tours of Europe and North America. By the late '80s he was based in Paris — not, however, only to be closer to his newer, more affluent audiences and the most modern studios, but also to keep his distance from Mobutu. The Zairean “president-for-life”, having squandered his country's wealth, reacted to mounting unrest by cracking down ever harder on anyone he suspected of disloyalty, including Tabu Ley. In 1993 Tabu was barred from returning to his native country. The following year he moved to the U.S. and settled near Los Angeles when he wasn't touring. He gave memorable concerts and recorded a couple of albums in this country, but his attention became increasingly focused on the turmoil in Zaire, particularly after Mobutu's henchmen roughed up members of his family in Zaire. When rebel forces routed Mobutu into exile in 1997, Tabu Ley returned home.

Back in the country renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tabu formed a political party, got elected to Parliament, served in the new president's cabinet, and eventually became vice-governor of Kinshasa. After ten years of public service, he was planning a series of new recordings when he suffered a cardiovascular stroke that left him lame and hardly able to speak, much less sing. Other than brief visits to Kinshasa, he spent the remaining five years of his life in Brussels, where he lived with some of his many children and grandchildren. His death has been attributed to diabetes exacerbated by the effects of his stroke.

With Tabu Ley's passing, almost the entire first generation of modern Congolese musicians is gone now. We are very fortunate, though, that their marvelous music survives. - Ken Braun

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