Modero Mekanisi, who plays saxophone for African pop music giant Tabu Ley Rochereau, walked along a quiet Anaheim street on a sizzling summer day and stretched his hands skyward.
“You see?,” he said. “Anaheim is like Kinshasa!”
It probably is safe to say that the home of Disneyland and the teeming capital of Zaire in Central Africa are not often compared. But the two cities half a world apart do have at least one thing in common: warm weather year-round--which is something Rochereau and the members of his Orchestre Afrisa International missed desperately in New Jersey, the latest on the long list of former addresses they’ve compiled since leaving strife-torn Zaire reluctantly in 1988.
And so it is that a faded blue-and-white Craftsman home in suburban Orange County has become the latest base of operations for this storied band on the run.
Ten of the band’s 14 members live in the rented two-story house and its apartment-style addition in back, above a garage where they sometimes rehearse.
During a two-hour interview with Rochereau and Mekanisi, a stream of sleepy-eyed musicians straggled downstairs from morning showers; from the back of the house came the sounds of African pop recordings.
Family was notably absent. Rochereau’s wife and children live in Paris where there is a sizable community of Zairian expatriates, but as the U.S increasingly becomes a major market for his music, the singer finds that the U.S. is where he must stay.
Pioneers of the internationally successful dance music called soukous, Rochereau and his band have filled stadiums the world over. “He seems to be the best-known, most-respected African musician,” says E. Michael Harrington, chairman of the music composition department at Belmont University in Nashville and a teacher of world music classes there and at the University of Alabama. “He’s been around so long, has so many recordings. . . .” For a man who has been called the African Elvis, his life of crowded quarters and separation from family is Spartan, to say the least. But he says it is relaxing to return here on breaks from the near-constant touring.
“To be here is better. The weather is better. . . . We feel more at home here on the West Coast,” he said.
Any sense of home is accepted gratefully by Rochereau who, at 54, has been traveling almost as long as he can remember. “Since I was a kid, all my time I’m on a trip,” said Rochereau, who speaks English but who gave his more complex answers in French, to be translated by Mekanisi. “In Africa, in Europe, I’m always moving.”
His most recent tour took the band to Kenya and Uganda for a month. He squeezed in a 24-hour stop in Paris to visit his family, and was off again. After two shows Wednesday at the Long Beach Museum of Art, the band hit the road for a swing through Northern California.
These days the band plays a steady stream of clubs, concert halls and festivals in the United States. It also tours regularly in Europe, Africa, even Japan. But one place it has not appeared since 1988 is Zaire.
Rochereau has been back only twice for short and somber visits: for the funeral in 1989 of Franco, his onetime musical rival, and for the funeral in 1991 of his former wife. Rochereau, who once sang songs in praise of Zaire’s President Mobutu, has in recent years been harshly critical of the longtime dictator who many say is responsible for his country’s continuing slide into poverty and virtual anarchy.
Rochereau said he thinks that returning for any length of time would be risky. He said he doesn’t think he would be harmed outright or arrested, but that he feels certain he would not be allowed to perform.
He looks forward to a time when he can return to perform but he thinks that even then, he would keep the United States as a base--for ease of travel, for touring opportunities and because he enjoys recording here. He made two albums last year in New Orleans for Rounder Records, a label based in Cambridge, Mass. One, “Muzina,” a collection of new material, was received enthusiastically here and in Africa. The other, “Worldwide Africa” with new versions of some of his classic songs, will be released in the fall. “Worldwide Africa” will mark 35 years as a professional musician for Rochereau.
Rochereau was among the first to bring African pop to a wider audience with an astonishingly successful run at the Paris Olympia in 1970: 26 performances in 18 days, followed by a shorter engagement at the London Palladium.
Rochereau was just 14 when he won a vocal competition in front of 80,000 people in Kinshasa’s sports stadium. The city then was just blooming into its position as the continent’s pop music capital.
The dominant presence on the scene was Joseph Kabasele, also known as Le Grand Kalle, who took Rochereau (then known by his given name, Tabu Pascal) under his wing when the young singer was still in his teens.
Rochereau wrote for Kabasele, without credit, until he joined African Jazz as a full-fledged member in 1960. Through several bands--and, by his count, more than 100 albums and 2,000 songs--Rochereau has put his own distinctive stamp on urban Zairian pop.
He helped to establish what remains a standard formula for soukous songs: a lilting, ballad-like opening, a slightly speeded-up middle section with chorus vocals, and the infectious sebene finale in which interweaving guitar lines careen over a hyper-speed rumba rhythm.
Many of the biggest soukous stars, from Papa Wemba to Sam Mangwana, passed through Rochereau’s bands and benefited from his tutelage. Now that Franco and Kabasele are dead, Rochereau is Zaire’s surviving musical statesman.
And that poses a challenge for Rochereau: He must strive to keep his music close to its origins while living in places like Anaheim.
“When you stay a long time here, not to go home, you get more Westernized,” said Rochereau, who was wearing a colorful African jacket over a House of Blues T-shirt. The outfit seemed to symbolize the way he straddles two worlds, but “we want to keep the roots,” he said. “We want to stay the same.”