Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Couple of Rochereaus

Just about everyone in the United States who started collecting African music in the 1970s and '80s is familiar with the productions of Brooklyn's African Record Centre, with its labels Makossa, Star Musique and others. Back in those days it was pretty much the only source in the US for authentic African music, by which I mean the sort of stuff that's listened to in Africa itself. The ARC licensed many recordings by Fela Ransome-Kuti (later Fela Anikulapo-Kuti), then only known to a small but devoted coterie. It released a raft of funky Ghanaian guitar-highlife records, recordings by Franco and other "Zaïrean" artists, 12" benga records produced by Kenya's indomitable P.O. Kanindo, and an amazing series by the US-based Sierra Leonean group Muyei Power, some of which have been gathered into a retrospective by London's Soundway Records. 

These recordings would make their way through obscure distribution channels to record stores throughout the land, where perplexed clerks would stash them in the "International" bin along with records by Nana Mouskouri and Heino. "World Music™" had yet to be born!

By 1983 I had already been a fan of Fela's for a while, King Sunny Adé had made a splash, and in 1981 and '82 Mango Records had released two compilations of African music, Sound d'Afrique and Sound d'Afrique II: Soukous, both of which were revelations but especially the second, which showcased the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo, then called Zaïre. So, during a trip to New York City I had to make a pilgrimage to 1194 Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn, this Mecca of African sounds.

I have to say the store was everything I'd hoped for, crammed to the gills with not only ARC's own productions but even more mysterious imports actually pressed in Africa! I wasn't exactly flush with cash at the time - I could only afford five LPs. I got a couple of Sunny Adé Nigerian pressings, and a French reissue of Fela's Coffin for Head of State. What would the fourth and fifth ones be? I liked the Zaïrean music I'd heard - could the clerk make a recommendation? It turned out Makossa had just released a number of recordings from that country, including the one the clerk handed over - Kele Bibi: Rochereau Vol. 8 (Disco Stock Makossa DM 5001, 1982), by an artist I'd never heard of - "Seigneur Tabu Ley."

I'll admit I looked at this record with some skepticism. Who was this middle-aged, rather paunchy fellow in a cheesy Elvis-style white jumpsuit and cape? But when the clerk put the record on the turntable I was sold! I got that one and a second record, Mpeve Ya Longo: Rochereau Vol. 7 (Disco Stock Makossa DM 5000, 1982), this one featuring Tabu Ley and a female singer, M'Bilia Bel:

According to Wikipedia, Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu was born November 13, 1937 or 1940 in Bagata, in what was then the Belgian Congo. He came by his nickname "Rochereau" after correctly naming the French general Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau in a quiz at school. In 1956 he joined African Jazz, the musical congregation of Joseph Athanase Tshamala Kabasele, or Le Grand Kallé, considered the father of modern Congolese music, and notched a number of hits with the group before leaving with Nicolas Kasanda wa Mikalay (known as Docteur Nico) in 1963 to form African Fiesta. This group split in turn in 1965, Rochereau forming African Fiesta National, renamed Afrisa International in 1970. Around this time he also took on the stage name "Tabu Ley" as part of President Mobutu Sese-Seko's Authenticité campaign.

During the '70s Afrisa International vied with Franco's TPOK Jazz and other groups to popularize Congolese music around the world, making it the most widespread and popular style across Africa. During this period Afrisa performed at the legendary Zaïre '74 concert, during FESTAC '77 in Lagos, and at the Olympia Theater in Paris.

It was Rochereau's lovely voice that made him a star, instantly recognizable on such classic tunes as "Afrika Mokili Mobimba" and many others, but it was his stage show and musical innovations that kept him on top for many years. Elvis, of course, was an inspiration, but so were James Brown and other American R&B stars. He even did a cover of the Beatles classic "Let it Be"

M'Bilia Bel (born Marie-Claire M'Bilia M'boyo in Kinshasa in 1959) got started as a singer and dancer with Abeti Masikini. Here she was spotted by Tabu Ley and invited to join his female backup group, the Rocherettes.She performed with them for a few years before making Mpeve Ya Longo with Ley, her recording debut. She was an immediate hit and soon cut a solo album, Eswi Yo Wapi (Genidia GEN 102, 1983), with more recordings, solo and with Tabu Ley, to follow. The pair were soon married, with Bel as the junior wife in Rochereau's polygamous marriage.

The two albums showcased here, Mpeve Ya Longo and Kele Bibi, come at an interesting inflection point in the careers of the two artists. The following year, 1983, would see the release of several recordings on Rochereau's Genidia label that catapulted the pair to international fame, with more to follow over the next few years. A compilation on the Shanachie label, Rochereau (43017, 1984) introduced them to US audiences. A few years ago Sterns Music released The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2 by Tabu Ley (STCD 3056-57, 2010) and Bel Canto by M'Bilia Bel (STCD 3037-38, 2007), which showcase the best music of the Genidia years.

The sound of Mpeve Ya Longo and Kele Bibi is subtly different from the Genidia recordings. I don't know if it's because of different recording engineers or what, but the mixes here are looser-sounding, less polished and push the vocals to the forefront while making way for some really inspired instrumental jams. Truly infectious!

After several years and one child together, the personal and professional partnership of Tabu Ley and M'Bilia Bel came to an acrimonius end in 1987, allegedly over disrespect shown by Bel to Tabu Ley's senior wife, Mimi Ley. Whatever the reason, Bel's career on her own, after a promising start with 1988's Phènomené (Mbilia Production MCB 001), has declined over the years, although she continues to record and tour.

Following Bel's departure, Rochereau hooked up with two new female singers, Faya Tess and her sister Beyou Ciel, and continued to record and tour internationally. After the fall of Presidnet Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1997 he took a cabinet position in the new government of Joseph Kabila and followed that up with several other positions over the years. He passed away on November 30, 2013 in Belgium and was buried in Kinshasa after an official mourning ceremony.

Here is Mpeve Ya Longo: Rochereau Vol. 7:

Download Mpeve Ya Longo as a zipped file here. And here is Kele Bibi: Rochereau Vol. 8, the record that made me fall in love with the great Tabu Ley:

Download Kele Bibi as a zipped file here. I have Vols. 5 and 6 of this series also, and I might post them in the future.While researching this post I came across this rare video, which reunites Rochereau with his old partner, Docteur Nico. I suspect this was recorded in the early '80s, shortly before Nico's death, but he's in stellar form! Turns out this was uploaded by Stefan Werdekker of the excellent WorldService blog. Thaks, Stefan!


Mouhamadou Ndiaye said...

Thank you for these 2 rare LPs. Was wondering if you have any of Abeti's albums by any chance like Je Suis Fache, En Colere, etc..

Unknown said...

Very comprehensive. Excellent work!

John B. said...


It just so happens I have several recordings by Abeti, including Je Suis Faché. So I'll probably post some in the future.

Mouhamadou Ndiaye said...

I am waiting for her albums in the future. Thank you

moos said...

Thank you so much for these rare Tabu Ley's

glinka said...

My wife and I were just yesterday in the car, and I was raving over the beauty and seeming effortlessness of his singing in Mofuku na libenga. (Hope I wrote that right.) She wasn't impressed. I just heard it again, and again was impressed. I think I prefer the sheer sweetness of Kosmos Moutouari's sound, but damn, Tabu Ley was superb. We're all lucky he chose to record as much as he did--and thank you for keeping that voice alive and available to the rest of us.

John B. said...


In case you haven't seen this:

Anonymous said...

You married the wrong wife :-)

David said...

Thank you so much for these. I am now (finally) the proud owner of Vols 1-8 (in MP3) & if these two are anywhere as good as the other six, well I'm in for a treat

wrldsrv said...

Having seen Tabu Ley perform a few times (notably once - in the Melkweg - draped in what to me seemed a large white bedsheet, with silver glittery trousers) I suspect he would not have been offended for his records to be stashed with those of Nana Mouskouri or even Heino. He was - and wanted to be - in all aspects an international showman.
Nice albums!!

Iroakazi CL said...

Excellent job, JB, thanks.

Do you have any authority to back up the claim that Faya Tess and Beyou Ciel are sisters? I had never heard or read that anywhere until today.

Also, do you have anything from Peacocks International Highlife Band of Nigeria? Specifically, I am looking for a 1977 album -- Ochonma Kparaku. If you do, can you share, please?


John B. said...


I don't remember where I read that about Faya Tess and Beyou Ciel, but I think it was in a book rather than on the internet. But who knows?

I have the album "Ochonma Kpara Aku" by the Sylarks, Dan Orji's split-off from the Peacocks. Is that the one you're thinking of? Also several albums by the Peacocks themselves. A post, or several, of the Peacocks AND the Skylarks, is an excellent idea!

Iroakazi CL said...

Great to hear that you are alright and back, I had wondered what became of you for awhile.

The album I have been dying to finding is Peacocks’ Ochonma, it came out about 1977, after Orji’s departure. That album was a hit — every of its track was a hit. If you don’t have it, Skylarks’ version will substitute enough. I look forward to posts from you about them.

Ralph Amarabem and Dan Orji have joined our ancestors without explaining what led to their releasing separate albums with similar songs, with only slight variations in lyrics and beats, from different bands right after Orji's exit from Peacocks. Indeed, Peacocks first released the album and the songs composers were listed next to the songs, yet Skylarks released its album less than a year later and it had most of the songs that had been released by Peacocks -- the only tracks not reproduced by Skylarks were Nne Wu Nne and Umu Nnunu. Guest what? Skylarks' album was also a hit and no lawsuit, over plagiarism or copyright infringement, was filed. I still don't get it.

Anyway, here is a description of the album and I hope that you have it and can share it.
Have a wonderful New Year, John.

Peacocks International Highlife Band
EMI ‎– NEMI (LP) 0179

Here are the tracks on it:

A1 Sambola Mama
Written-By – Ejike Anyanwu
A2 Inya Akpa Ako
Written-By – Bon Nkwopara*
A3 Nne Wu Nne
Written-By – Ralph Amarabem*
B1 Ocho Mma
Written-By – Ralph Amarabem*
B2 Umu Nnunu
Written-By – Bon Nkwopara*, Ejike Anyanwu
B3 Ndi Oru Uzo
Written-By – Bon Nkwopara*