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African Legends

Tabu Ley Rochereau

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 21, 2006

It’s been more than half a century since Tabu Ley Rochereau first graced a stage, and to this day there is no more prominent figure in Congolese music.

He was born Tabu Ley in 1940 in Bandundu, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Rochereau was a nickname that he later tacked on). He was already musically active by 14, writing his first song, “Bessama Muchacha,” which he recorded with Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele’s band, African Jazz. He became a full-time member of that group in 1959 but split four years later to form African Fiesta, which also included the guitar great Dr. Nico (they went their separate ways in 1965).

Starting in the early ’60s, African Fiesta (Papa Wemba and Sam Mangwana were also high-profile alumni) began traveling to Europe to record. Laying down dozens of tracks in a matter of days forced Rochereau to churn out songs with machine-like regularity, allowing him to build a sizable catalog and an equally titanic reputation.

In 1970 Rochereau renamed his band Orchestre Afrisa International, the change appropriately coinciding with the birth of soukous, a faster, more raucous style that incorporated elements of Cuban rhythm and even American funk and country music. Orchestre Afrisa International remained extremely popular throughout the 1980s.

In the early ’90s Rochereau briefly immigrated to southern California. His music took on more of a Western flavor but by the end of that decade he had returned to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, where he added to his considerable résumé by taking a position as a cabinet minister with the new government.

Recommended Recordings

Omana Wapi (Shanachie) (with Franco)
Babeti Soukous (RealWorld)
Africa Worldwide (Rounder)