Opening Ears to Urban African Pop : World music: Tabu Ley Rochereau, who performs tonight in Long Beach, is a missionary of sound.
The first taste of stardom came early to Tabu Ley Rochereau, when he played before a huge crowd--including an assortment of dignitaries, the king of Belgium among them--celebrating the 1955 opening of a new soccer stadium in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo.
City and nation long since have been known as Kinshasa and Zaire, respectively, and the stadium went on to gain a measure of fame in 1974 as site of one of the most celebrated boxing matches ever, the “rumble in the jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
But Rochereau, who performs tonight in Long Beach, remembers best that long-ago day when the stadium was new.
Just 14, his public singing had been confined before then to family gatherings and baptisms at his church. But he was invited to take part in a vocal competition to mark the stadium opening--and he won.
“It was maybe 80,000 people in the stadium; it was live on radio,” Rochereau recalls. Before then he was just another youngster, but “that same day, I was very known.”
Newspapers and radio stations called on him for interviews. More important for the young singer, “there was one big, big star--we call him the father of modern Zairian music--(who) called me to write a song for him.”
That was Joseph Kabasele, known as Le Grand Kalle, who more than anyone was responsible for creating a distinctive Central African sound that fused Latin rumba with Congolese rhythms.
Rochereau began writing songs for him, at first without credit. “When I finished my school on 1959, I started to put my name on the records. The first song was ‘Kalia.’ That song was very, very popular, even to now. Even the musicians from Puerto Rico, Cuba and all over Africa, they put that song in their language and make a record with it.”
Rochereau and Orchestre Afrisa International play tonight on the lawn at the Long Beach Museum of Art for the final concert of the museum’s summer series. He was interviewed in late June on an earlier swing through Long Beach, the morning after he performed during the FESTAC African-Caribbean music festival at Rainbow Lagoon.
His singing has often been described as honey-voiced, but his speaking tone is deeper and more resonant. He chatted amiably in heavily accented English about his long career, pausing only occasionally to reach for words (French is the official language of Zaire, although Rochereau sings most often in Lingala, the main local language).
In a career than spans almost 40 years, Rochereau has released more than 100 albums in Zaire and has written, “I suppose, 2,200, maybe 2,300 songs. Because every year, I make new songs for me and for other musicians.”
In the United States, Rochereau has been a steady presence on the touring scene and has even resided here periodically (he lived in Los Angeles for a spell in 1989 and is staying now in New Jersey). He is not as well known here, however, as Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour or Mali’s Ali Farka Toure.
But it was Rochereau who opened Europe’s eyes to urban African pop, with an astonishingly successful 1970 run (extended several times) of 26 performances in 18 days at the Paris Olympia, followed by a shorter engagement at the London Palladium.
“It was a big event for Africa,” Rochereau said. “It was the first time that a black star came straight from Africa with a band to play the Olympia. . . . Before me, it was Miriam Makeba, but Miriam Makeba was based here (in the United States), and she played with American and Brazilian musicians.”
In the decade before his European breakthrough, he was building his stature as a Pan-African star with few rivals. After several years of writing, singing and touring with Kabasele’s seminal African Jazz, he joined the band full time in 1959 (other members at the time included Dr. Nico, who was Zaire’s top guitarist until his death in 1985, and Cameroonian saxophone player Manu Dibango, still an international star).
When that band dissolved a few years later, Rochereau and Dr. Nico joined forces, but “only for two years,” Rochereau said. “Him and me, we were very young, and (had) no experience. After two years, we started over again.”
Both started their own bands--Nico had African Fiesta Sukisa, while Rochereau led African Fiesta National, which eventually became Afrisa International.
In the ‘60s, Rochereau created controversy when he introduced the use of a Western-style drum kit (now widely accepted in Afro-pop) and popularized elaborate, highly choreographed stage shows.
Later in the decade, Rochereau helped pioneer a new sound that continues to dominate Zaire and other parts of Central Africa: soukous . Essentially speeded-up versions of the older rumba tunes, soukous are long, two-part songs with a lilting first section, in which the lead singer, later joined by a chorus, sings the main lyrics; then in the second section, or sebene , the beat kicks into hyper-drive and the music is propelled by elaborately interlocking guitar parts that echo the traditional melodies of the likembe , a Zairian thumb piano.
In the nightclubs of Kinshasa, audiences sit quietly for the first part of the song, then get up and dance en masse for the second section.
“The first part is for lyrics and poetics, words,” where the audiences “listen to what the musicians are talking about,” Rochereau explained. “After that, sebene comes, and people move.”
Many soukous musicians left Zaire in the 1970s and ‘80s to live and record in Paris, but Rochereau stayed until 1988. He left on a temporary visa but stayed away as political and economic conditions in Zaire worsened. His family is in Belgium. Rochereau also owns homes in Paris, Kenya and South Africa.
In Zaire, Rochereau and another enormously popular singer, Franco, had very complex relationships with the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko, who has held power since 1965 and is widely accused of destroying the country while enriching himself to the tune of billions of dollars.
Rochereau and Franco were courted--and held in deep suspicion--by Mobutu because of their popularity. Any song perceived as critical of the government was likely to land them in trouble. Rochereau found himself in and out of favor while in Zaire.
His decision to leave in 1988 and some of the songs he has recorded in Paris since have created further tensions with Mobutu.
“I left to record in Europe . . . but I stayed a long time, and (the) government was thinking I had run away. They called me to go back, but I refused.”
Rochereau said he now is barred from returning. Since leaving Zaire in 1988, he has been allowed to return only once, a 24-hour visit for the funeral of Franco in 1989. Still, he shrugged when asked if it worried him. “As a politician, he will change,” he said. “He needs me.”
Franco’s death (reportedly of AIDS) ended an era in which the two singers sparred publicly through their songs. “Sometimes he writes song, he talks bad of me. I worry, and I write a song for him,” Rochereau said. “Many times he was a rival, because he was working to be better than me.”
Privately, the two became friends, but the public enjoyed the rivalry, so it was maintained. “One day he told me, ‘You know, Tabu Ley, people don’t like us to be friendly, because you and me we are like plane engines, you on right and me on left, and we work to make the aircraft go to the destination.’ It was one year before he died, he told me that.”
While touring this summer, Rochereau has also been putting the finishing touches on an album for Rounder Records, his first recorded in the U.S. Scott Billington, who has worked with such New Orleans R & B artists as Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, produced the record, which will be released in September.
One of his goals, Billington said in a telephone interview, was to get away from the heavily synthesized drum sound of recent recordings Rochereau has made for the French label Sonodisc (some of which have been released in the United States by Shanachie Records).
“I wanted to get away from tracks that were so computer-oriented. . . . There was so much reliance on MIDI sounds, he was losing a bit of the spirit and excitement,” Billington said.
Rochereau, who has a full-time MIDI player in his band, took some persuading. “We actually had some pretty heated exchanges,” Billington said. “In the end, when we finally got down to mixing the record, we had a very good time. . . .
“I grew, as I got to know him, to respect him very much,” said Billington. Working with an African artist was new for him, but “I’m always looking for people who have taken a roots-music style and created something new.”
Billington and Rochereau agreed that while the new album is designed to reach a wider U.S. audience, it remains primarily a work for the singer’s compatriots in Zaire.
One song in particular, Rochereau said, “is for reconciliation for all the people in my country. (I want) the people from government, the people in the opposition, everyone to sit together to talk good, to push our country to go ahead. I think they will be happy.”
* Tabu Ley Rochereau & Orchestre Afrisa International perform tonight at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 7 p.m. Grounds open at 6 p.m. for dining. $8 to $10, free for kids 12 and under. (310) 439-2119.