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Africa mourns ‘King of Congolese rumba’


Fans across Africa and the rest of the world are paying tributes to Tabu Ley Rochereau a day after the legendary Congolese musician who inspired a continent died in a Belgian hospital aged 76.


For millions of his fans, he was “the messenger,” “the baobab of Congolese rumba,” or “Prince Rochereau”. A day after legendary Congolese singer-songwriter Tabu Ley Rochereau died aged 76 in a Belgian hospital, tributes to one of Africa’s greatest sons and most beloved musicians were pouring from across the continent – and the rest of the world.

“RIP Tabu Ley. The music world has lost a true icon,” tweeted a well-known Kenyan musician. “Rest in peace to one of the planet’s great singers, Tabu Ley Rochereau,” tweeted a respected US music critic.

Another seasoned Africa correspondent based in the UK noted, “Amazing there is nothing in the Sunday papers on Tabu Ley Rochereau, a musical megastar with political significance, who died yesterday.”

More than half-a-century after most African nations gained independence, it’s still a challenge for the continent’s musicians to access a truly international platform.

But for world music aficionados and his African fans who danced, romanced and swooned to his tunes, Rochereau was the man who internationalised Congolese music – singing in three European languages besides his native Lingala, fusing Congolese folk music with Cuban, French pop, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, as well as Caribbean rumba.

The legendary musician is considered one of the pioneers of soukous, a genre of dance music that has its roots in African rumba music of the Belgian Congo and French Congo in the 1940s.

He is probably best known for singing the pan-African hit, “Independance Cha Cha,” which became the unofficial nationalist anthem for the newly independent African states. The 1960 African rumba song vocalised the hopes of an optimistic bygone era and it can still be heard blasting from radios in villages, hamlets, drinking-dens and rickety boats across the continent.

From musician to politician

Born Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu on November 13, 1937 in the eastern Bandundu province of then Belgian Congo, he joined a band after high school.

In the mid-1950s, his musical career took off when he joined a group led by Joseph Kabasele, better known as “La Grand Kallé”. During the heady days shortly before independence, Kabasele wrote the song, “Independence Cha Cha” and when Rochereau sang the hit tune, he shot to instant fame.

It was not long before the Congolese musician was leading his own bands, including the Orchestre Afrisa International and after that, there was no looking back.

He took the name “Tabu Ley” during then president Mobutu Sese Seko’s “Zairization” process to rid the country of its colonial vestiges.

But in 1988, Rochereau left what was then Zaire to go into exile in Europe, where he recorded his album, “Trop, c’est trop” (Too much is too much) – which was banned by Mobutu’s regime.

Rochereau returned to his homeland only after Mobutu’s 1997 ouster, when he took up a cabinet ministerial position under the new president, Laurent Kabila. According to the AFP, Rochereau had hoped to become minister of culture but eventually settled for the post of vice-governor of Kinshasa.

Rousing a continent – and selling soap

A prolific songwriter, Rochereau recorded at a relentless pace, often using some of the best local sidemen. While his flexibility and experimentation produced a diverse oeuvre, the Rochereau trademark remained a light musical style and voice. It was a sophistication acknowledged in one of the few Rochereau albums produced in the US, “The Voice of Lightness”.

Rochereau’s voice was so eclectic, it could soar the hopes of an entire continent with a rousing pan-African anthem and soothe babies with a pleasant advertising jingle. In a music review in The Guardian, critic Robin Denselow noted that Rochereau’s famous “Savon Omo” is “surely the most charming soap commercial ever recorded”.

In 2008, the veteran musician suffered a stroke, from which he never recovered until his death on Saturday morning at St. Luc Hospital in Brussels, according to his son-in-law Jean Claude Muissa.

The veteran Congolese star will be given a state funeral in his homeland and will be buried in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. He is survived by nearly 68 children from different women.

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