He breathed his last on November 30, 2013. He was 73 or 76, depending on which source you read. Born Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu, he would later go by Tabu Ley Rochereau, following then President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Authenticité reforms in the late 1960’s that were aimed at ridding the country of any lingering traces of colonialism and the continuing influence of Western culture.
This included dressing styles, appropriate renaming of all major towns and cities, as well dropping of Christian names. Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa, while Stanleyville became Kisangani. Tabu Ley dropped the name Pascal. He only studied up to secondary school before switching to music as a full time career.
He got the name Rochereau when his peers at school teased him after answering a question on French History. The question was about the general who led the resistance during the Franco-Prussian war –Gen. Pierre Denfert Rochereau. The name stuck. And he opted to keep it as his stage name.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
The Musical Journey:
Tabu Ley initially sang in a church choir. As a teen he took songs he had written to the leading musician of the time, Joseph Kabasele, who recorded them and invited the youth into the group. After finishing high school, Tabu Ley joined Kabasele’s L'African Jazz band as a full-time musician.
One of Tabu Ley’s earliest musical moments was when he sang in the pan-African hit Indépendance Cha Cha. During the celebrations, he was chauffeured around with then premier Patrice Lumumba in the latter’s Cadillac, in 1960. He only stayed with L’African Jazz band until 1963, before leaving to form his own band, African Fiesta.
The 1960’s through to 1980 saw Tabu Ley record huge success with hits like Kelya, Adios Teté, Bonbon Sucré, Sorozo, Kaful Mayay, Aon Aon, and Mose Konzo among others. In 1966 he recorded the lovely ballad Mokolo na kokufa (The Day I Die) which became one of his greatest songs ever.
In 1970, he renamed his band to Orchestre Afrisa International, Afrisa being a combination of Africa and Éditions Isa, his record label. Along with Franco Luambo's TPOK Jazz band, Afrisa was one of Africa's greatest bands. He was the first African artist to perform at the Olympia in Paris, in 1970.
Impressed with the power of Western pop and R&B, Rochereau added trap drums to his line-up early on, and grew an afro as well as wearing bell-bottoms and James Brown-style stage costumes. In 1981 he recruited a young talented singer and dancer --M'bilia Bel, initially a backup singer for Abeti Masikini and later with Sam Mangwana, who he had worked with at Afrisa.
M'bilia Bel joined his group of spicy female dancers, known as Rocherettes. She would help popularize his band further, and became the first female soukous singer to gain acclaim throughout Africa.
Another of Tabu Ley’s greatest music master pieces was done in 1985. The Government of Kenya had banned all foreign music from the National Radio service. In the same year, he composed the song Nakei Nairobi and its Swahili version: Twende Nairobi (Let's go to Nairobi) --sung by M'bilia Bel, in praise of Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi. The ban was promptly lifted.
In the early 1990s he briefly settled in Southern California. He began to tailor his music towards an International audience by including more English lyrics and by increasing more international dance styles such as Samba. He found success with the release of albums such as Muzina, Exil Ley, Africa Worldwide and Babeti soukous.
In 1996, Tabu Ley participated in the album Gombo Salsa by the salsa music project Africando. The song Paquita from that album is a remake of a song that he recorded in the late 1960s with African Fiesta. His last album was Tempelo, released in 2006 with the help of a friend, Maika Munan. It also features Melodie, a girl he had sired with M’bilia Bel. In all, Tabu Ley recorded over 3,000 songs and produced 250 albums during his singing career.
The Rivalry with Franco
Tabu Ley is said to have had great rivalry with TPOK’s Franco, a rivalry many a critic believed it was only meant to sell their shows. It was the same case with Dr Nico Kasanda, after Kasanda had formed a splinter group from Afrisa in 1965 to form his own band.
The three would come together, however, following the death of Kalle Kabasele in 1983. Kabasele was a highly respected musician, and widely regarded as the founder of Congolese music. While Franco was still going strong, Kasanda had taken a break off music following the collapse of his Belgian record label. He had now taken to the bottle, and later passed on, in a Belgian hospital in 1985.
Both Tabu Ley and Franco were in Paris when news of Kabaselle’s death came in. They decided to bury the hatchet and recorded Kabaselle in Memoriam, and three other tracks, laid down by Franco's guitarist Michelino, himself a defector from Afrisa.
Tabu Ley's Political life:
Rochereau danced delicately around Mobutu, as it would be dangerous for him to do otherwise. Towards the end of the 1980’s, however, he became disenchanted and sought out exile in France, in 1988. His 1990 album Trop, C'est Trop was banned by the Mobutu regime as it was deemed subversive.
He was always more explicitly distant from Mobutu’s politics, especially in the darkest moments of his tyranny and until his end. In 1993 he published the album Exil-Ley. It contained mainly political songs.
Amongst those was Le Glas a Sonnè (the bell has gone), where he nominates one by one the Congolese politics and musicians from Patrice Lumumba to Joseph Kabasele; from Franco Luambo to Moise Tsombe but avoids mentioning Mobutu. In the song he expressed his disappointment for the lost occasion of the African leaders, once freed by the European tyranny, instead of serving Africa they fought against each other.
When Mobutu was deposed in 1997, Tabu Ley returned to Kinshasa and took up a position as a cabinet minister in the government of new President Laurent Kabila. After Kabila's death, Tabu Ley joined the appointed transitional parliament created by Joseph Kabila, until it was dissolved following the establishment of the inclusive transitional institutions.
In November 2005 Tabu Ley was appointed Vice-Governor of Kinshasa, a position devolved to his party, the Congolese Rally for Democracy by the 2002 peace agreements. He also served as provincial minister of Culture and Arts, Sports, Youth and Leisure, and Tourism in the City-Province of Kinshasa until his health deteriorated and had to relinquish the position.
Family, And the Women in his life:
There was Teté, one of his first wives with whom Tabu Ley had 6 children. Then came Jeanne Mokomo, Miss Zaire 1969, with whom he had another 6 Children as well. He also had dozens of children with other different women. But M’bilia Bel was perhaps the most recognizable of his collection of wives.
Initially recruited as a singer/dancer, She soon took on other duties and became Tabu Ley’s official wife in 1987. When she finally gave birth to a baby girl, Melodie, Tabu Ley divorced his old wife, Sarah. But the marriage was not to last.
In the run up to her giving birth, Tabu Ley had recruited another female vocalist Kilisha Ngoyi, better known by her stage name: Faya Tess, perhaps to cover for the time M’bilia Bel was going to be away. Along with the two, the band went on one big tour of East Africa that took in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
This culminated in the album Nadina, which had Lingala and Swahili versions of the title song. The tour was well received by crowds. Upon their return, rumors started making rounds, about a rift between Tabu Ley and M'bilia Bel. Apparently, M’bilia Bel was not comfortable with Faya Tess’ closeness with Tabu Ley. Publicly, they both denied the rift.
After she had given birth, she decided to do a revenge on Tabu Ley, with guitarist Rigobert Bamundele, commonly known as Rigo Star. Tabu Ley had begun to devote all his resources to Bel. He saw her as her true love, but soon learnt of the affair. He nabbed them red-handed at the plush George V Hotel in Paris and apparently chased her through the streets with a pistol. That was the end of the relationship, and her career with Afrisa.
Perhaps to compensate Bel for the loss of place in the band, Rigo Star embarked on a career salvaging mission for M’bilia Bel, composing all the songs on her debut solo career album: Phénomène, which was released soon after.
Overall, Tabu Ley fathered about 68 Children. Four of those, Pegguy Tabu, Abel Tabu, Philemon and Youssoupha Mabiki (who has French Citizenship) followed their father’s footsteps. They are into music, albeit in different genres. Melodie, features on his last album, Tempelo, released in 2006 with the help of a friend, Maika Munan.
During his final days at St Lucas Hospital in Brussels, where he passed on, he was in the constant company of another daughter --Inna, and two sons. One of those was Marc Tabu, a France-based journalist with CFR6. He was the first person to break the news of his father’s demise, on his facebook wall.
Not much is known about the others, though. Some were barely out of their teens at the time of his death. Barely able to fend for themselves. Tabu Ley is said to have been a doting father, ensuring that his children got all the basics in life. These included good education, among others. The young ones, unfortunately, may never get to live the kind of life he’d have loved them to live.
Having Many Children: A common trend among Artistes?
Paul Job Kafeero (Uganda):
At the time of his death in May 2007, sources close to him said the Kadongo Kamu maestro was survived by 10 wives and 27 children. Because he died young (he was 36), he did not have a grown-up offspring. His eldest child was only about half his age, having sired him at a tender age of 18. He known for songs like Walumbe Zaaya, Olulimi Lwange, Buladina, Dipo Nazigala and Galenzi Mwe.
Paul Job Kafeero
Another Kadongo Kamu ace, Basudde died in a motor accident in 1997, and is said to have left behind a number of children, most of them still young at the time. Popular Songs of his time included: Bus Dunia, Ekyaali Mu Ssabo, Abakyaala Ba Bbeyi and Abankuseere.
Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi (DR Congo):
Commonly known as Franco, he had one of the greatest rivalries in the history of African music, with Tabu Ley. He fathered at least 19 known Children, 18 of whom were girls. In his song: Matata Ya Mwasi, he wonders why God decided to bless him with all of 18 girls, but could only afford him 1 boy. His other hits included the timeless Mario, Mamou, Candidat Na Biso and Tres Impoli among others.
The Cautious Ones:
Not all artistes bear them in droves, though. A number of them have had families with manageable sizes. Sizes that may not pose administration challenges during in the management of the deceased artistes’ estate, if they left any.
Madilu Systeme (1952 - 2007):
Born Jean De Dieu Makiese, he was christened Madilu by Franco. His most notable efforts were on two of TPOK’s most popular songs: Mamou (1984) and Mario(1985). He also did a couple of personal projects, the most popular of which was Ya Jean (Commonly known as Ngayo Ngayo at its peak). He had 4 children.
Cool James (1970 - 2002):
Née James Dandu, he was also known as Mtoto wa Dandu, a Sweden based Tanzanian artiste. He is famous for his runaway hit: Sina Makosa a remix of the timeless classic by Les Wanyika. He died in a car accident in 2002, and had 2 children.
Cool James (Mtoto Wa Dandu)
Pepe Kalle (1951 - 1998):
He was born Kabasele Yampanya in Kinshasa(DR Congo), and only adopted the name Pepe Kalle in honour of his mentor Joseph “Le Grand Kalle” Kabasele. At 6”3, he was a towering giant, and was affectionately known as the Elephant of African music and La Bombe Atomique, among several other names. He was famous such songs like Don’t Cry Dube, and Roger Milla among others. He had 5 Children.
Pepe Kalle, "La Bombe Atomique"
Lucky Dube (1964 - 2007):
Probably one of South Africa’s greatest musical exports to the continent, and the world. The reggae artiste was shot dead in 2007, aged 43. He was survived by 7 children. His most popular songs included Remember me, Prisoner, Slave and Different Colors among others.
He may have had his shortcomings, but, Tabu Ley Rochereau firmly established himself as one of the greatest African Musicians of the 20Th Century. Kende Malamu, Seigneur!
- Dan B. Atuhaire