Meticulously annotated two-CD set from one of Africa’s most popular performers.
Jon Lusk 2010-11-23
For just over a quarter of a century, Tabu Ley ‘Rochereau’’s supple, nasal tenor made him one of the most popular male African singers on the planet. As a key member or the leader of a succession of mighty bands, (starting with African Jazz in 1959) he was the only serious challenger to Franco, that other great magician of rumba congolaise, Africa’s quintessential 20th century dance music. Despite this, Tabu Ley’s vast recorded legacy has never been as familiar or accessible outside Africa. Until now.
This meticulously annotated two-CD set completes the retrospective Sterns began in 2007, and covers the second half of Tabu Ley’s career. Disc one (1977-1981) starts bang in the middle of his artistic, and probably also commercial, zenith. In those days his songs were regularly surpassing ten minutes, and he was usually backed by three singers, two or three guitarists, plus brass and a rhythm section.
Even so, the lithe, reggae-tinged opener Ekeseni features a more stripped-down combo. This first disc makes it clear why he was so revered, but among its eight effortlessly danceable grooves, a couple merit special mention. To Lingala speakers – and those who read Ken Braun’s excellent sleeve notes – Ponce Pilate is an allegory about the treachery of former band members that references Christ’s crucifixion. To the rest of the world, it’s a long, wonderful pop song with an insanely catchy ascending bass line, sparkling riffs by guitarist Dino Vangu and inspired exchanges between Tabu Ley and his chorus singers. The other real killer track here is Tanga Tanga, mostly for the hypnotic interplay between lead, ‘mi-solo’ and rhythm guitars.
Disc two (1983-1993) opens with the inimitable acoustic picking of Franco, who Tabu Ley had just teamed up with, thus wrong-footing fans that thought rivals couldn’t be colleagues. Kabasele in Memorium is their solemn tribute to another Congolese musician. By this time neither maestro was at their cutting edge and the music has a comfortably ‘middle-aged’ vibe. They were also recycling and/or swapping ideas, as the similarity between this, Lisanga Ya Banganga and various tracks on Franco’s fine Missile album from the same year attests. This was also the period when Tabu Ley’s band Afrisa featured the rather saccharine chanteuse Mbilia Bel – who appears briefly on Loyenghe – and ugly, dated synths were creeping into the mix. Not faultless, then, but certainly compelling.