28 April 2007

Congo-Kinshasa: The Sinatra of Africa

Nairobi — Beloved across the continent and with a career spanning decades, Tabu Ley reportedly lies critically ill at an undisclosed location. We take a look at one of Africa's most influential vocalists and prolific songwriters.

Late last week, a local radio station that broadcasts in vernacular sensationally reported the supposed death of one of the most talented and respected pioneers of African rhumba - Tabu Ley Pascal Rochereau.

A presenter at the station then went on to play music by the 67-year-old Congolese maestro. As if on cue, a more established and TV station, during a weekend afternoon news broadcast, reported that the musician was still alive but was critically ill.

These reports led Tabu Ley's fans to inundate the Moments desk with calls in a bid to seek a third opinion on the fate of their idol. Their concern was an unmistakable proof of the popularity of a musician considered to be the last surviving member of a generation of 'rumba music kings', who propped Congolese music into becoming the ubiquitous sound of Africa.

Tabu Ley's emblematises the link between the past and the present, musically speaking. Some of his popular songs in Kenya include Mokolo na Kokufa, Mongali, Monsieur Malonga, Etale, Muzina, Cherie Samba, Silikani, Bameli Soi and Ibeba.

Reporting falsehoods

However, journalists contacted in Kinshasa on Tuesday by Moments indicated that Tabu Ley is alive and the reports on sections of the Kenyan media were based on hearsay.

"Tabu Ley, like any other human being, is mortal, but as I speak to you now, I can confidently tell you that he is alive and well," said a journalist with Le Potentiel newspaper.

Harry Kabetsha, a Congolese living in Kenya, was livid that anyone would have the audacity to report such falsehoods.

"Listeners from all over the country have been calling me to ask about the authenticity of this reports but I assured them that Tabu Ley is such a prominent figure in African music and Congolese politics that if he were hospitalised or dead, all the world's major news networks would report the news," he says.

For Mwalimu James Onyango Joel, a veteran radio personality, the media reports reminded him of an incident in the 1980s. A radio presenter went on air to report the death of the hoarse-voiced Kenyan-based Tanzanian musician, Issa Juma of Wanyika Stars (also called Super Wanyika), which proved to be false.

Issa is remembered for Kiswahili songs such as Sigalame and Mpita Njia. The musician, who died a few years after the incident, was not amused.

"Juma wanted to sue but I convinced him to settle the matter out of court. I remember him saying: 'Kifo cha mtu siyo jambo la kuchezea' (death is not an issue to joke around with)," says Onyango. He is famously known as JOJ and hosts the Zilizopendwa show on KBC.

Song soften government stand

His favourite songs by Tabu Ley are Maze and Kiwelewele. Maze, a song that has the memorable English line 'I love you, baby touch me', gained popularity during the attempted coup in 1982 when the military officers who briefly took over KBC forced Leonard Mambo Mbotela - then a radio presenter at the station - to play it on repeat.

It is also said that the sheng word Maze, used for emphasis, was derived from the song.

Tabu Ley's wily nature was brought out in 1985 when the government of Kenya reportedly banned music not sang in English or Kiswahili from being played on KBC radio.

According to JOJ, this was in response to complaints by Kenyan musicians that lingala music was being given too much airtime.

Tabu Ley composed a song, Twende Nairobi, which praised Kenya and then President Daniel arap Moi and mentioned words like Harambee and Nyayo.

The song seemed to soften the government's stand on lingala and cemented Tabu Ley's idol status in Kenya. Indeed, Tabu Ley's visits to the country since the 1980s have always been well received.

Born in 1940 in the Bandundu Province of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tabu Ley composed his first song at the impressionable age of 14 and honed his vocal skills under the tutelage of the best of them all: The late Joseph Kabasele 'Le Grand Kalle' of African Jazz band.

African Jazz encountered fierce rivalry

The band also included 'Dr' Nico Kasanda, known as the 'god of the guitar' in honour of his skills.

African Jazz hogged the limelight when Kabasele and a few of his band members accompanied Congolese politicians to pre-independence negotiations in Brussels, Belgium and composed the song Independence Cha Cha Cha.

African Jazz encountered fierce rivalry in the form of OK Jazz (later known as TP OK Jazz) led by Franco Luambo Makiadi. According to Bikassy Bijos, a Congolese musician who performs in Kenya, African Jazz was considered to be a band for the intellectuals because its key members were educated while Franco's outfit represented the masses.

However, Franco had an advantage over Kabasele and Tabu Ley because he could sing and play the guitar while the two could only compose and sing, relying on 'Dr' Nico's guitar-playing skills.

In 1963, African Jazz split when Tabu Ley abandoned his protÈgÈ, Kabasele, to form Orchestra African Fiesta with 'Dr' Nico.

This relationship lasted only two years before the scramble for the name 'Fiesta' started with Tabu Ley forming his own Orchestra African Fiesta Flash (later called African Fiesta National and eventually evolved into Afrisa International), while 'Dr' Nico came up with African Fiesta Sukisa.

Two-horse musical race

This shifted the balance of music dominance in Congo. It was left to Tabu Ley and Franco with Kabasele and 'Dr' Nico unable to keep up with the competition.

While Franco called himself 'Le Grand Maitre (The Great Master)' and 'The Sorcerer of the Guitar', Tabu Ley had the sobriquets 'The Sinatra of Africa' or 'Seigneur.'

The two-horse musical race also included 'poaching' of musicians from both camps, with Tabu Ley emerging worse off. Even music fans and new bands formed by other musicians identified themselves either with the 'African Jazz Clan' or 'OK Jazz Clan.'

"This competitive spirit alongside the support the government of the late President Mobutu gave to musicians raised the standards of music in Zaire (Congo).

Of course other bands like Zaiko Langa Langa and Wenge Musica also came to the scene and attracted the younger generation," says Bikassy, who had a short stint with Tabu Ley's band in the 1970s.

In 1970, Tabu Ley became the first African musician to sing at the prestigious Olympia Theatre in Paris, France.

He also premiered in the introduction of female dancers, something most Congolese musicians eventually copied.

A woman with an angelic soprano

However, the Rochereauttes, as the dancers were called, were recruited by Franco and renamed Francolettes.

But come early 1980s and Franco and Tabu Ley put their rivalry aside and recorded songs like Lisanga ya Banganga (a meeting of two music wizards), Ngungi and Kabasele (a tribute to the 'father of modern Congolese music', who died in 1983).

Musicians who worked under Tabu Ley at one time or another include Sam Mangwana, Ndombe Opetum, Dino Vangu, Modero Mekanisi, Mavatiku Visi Michelino, Kiesse Diambu.

The 1981 recruitment of Mbilia Bel, a stunningly beautiful woman with an angelic soprano and dancing skills to match provided the hitherto missing link that enabled Afrisa International to counter Franco's dominance.

Mbilia's duets with Tabu Ley are refreshing to listen to. With his help, she released songs like Mobali Na Ngai Wana (This Husband Of Mine - a ditty dedicated to Tabu Ley), Eswi Yo Wapi?, Nadina, Beyanga, Wendenda and Cadence Mundanda, among others.

Tabu Ley eventually married Mbilia and they had one daughter, Melodie Tabu. Mbilia divorced Tabu Ley in 1987 and embarked on a solo music career.

It is thought that the introduction of another female singer, Faya Tess, in the band was too much for her to bear.

Tabu Ley's popularity plummeted

But according to Franco's biography, Congo Colossus by Graeme Ewens, a Gabonese politician and record producer also escalated the rift.

During her last visit to Kenya, Mbilia parried the question about the break up when it was put to her by a Standard journalist.

Congo Colossus also details that Tabu Ley's woes were worsened when Franco poached Baniel Bambo, who was Mbilia's understudy.

From then on Tabu Ley's popularity plummeted. He later went to the US on self-exile for political reasons and returned as a nominated MP in the government of the late Laurent Kabila after Mobutu was overthrown in 1997.

He has also served as a vice-Governor for the city of Kinshasa, in charge of political, administrative and socio-cultural issues.

Tabu Ley is currently a key member of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) party.

Although he has been accused of 'diluting' his later music by fusing styles to suit an international audience, no one can begrudge him his legend, with over 1,000 songs under his name.

Like other great musicians before him, he is fated to live forever through his music.

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