More Lightness Comes to Light

Tabu Ley Rochereau

The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 (Sterns Africa STCD 3056-57, 2010)

Only once did I get to see Tabu Ley Rochereau perform live. It was in 1994, and he made an almost unadvertised appearance at a small-scale African fair in Southern California’s Orange County. The Congolese music king, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, sang with a sparse backup band before an audience of perhaps 100 people, many of who clearly had no idea who he was. Nonetheless, he was electrifying.

I mention that event because it illustrates the graceful simplicity with which Rochereau’s extraordinary musical career wound down. But it reached many a height before concluding, and some of highest heights are hit on Sterns’ second volume of Rochereau’s best.

This concluding go-around covers the years 1977 to 1993, when Congolese rumba was ever more impacted by changes in public taste, cultural and societal concerns, politics, evolving technology and of course the almost constant shifting around of who played and sang in what band. Tabu Ley successfully navigated every bend in the musical road, most notably the modernizing of rumba into the slicker sounds of Paris-produced soukous.

The first CD begins with the stark solo vocal and rudimentary accompaniment of “Ekeseni” (“Different”) and builds elegantly from there, adding ever more rich layers of guitars, voices, drum rhythms and sheer length on songs that juxtapose spirituality and human foibles (“Ponce Pilate”), look at love in simplest terms (“Tanga Tanga”) and cut loose with pure dancing pleasure (“Monsieur Malonga”).

Recorded in Kinshasa, Cotonou or Brazzaville (depending upon availability, convenience or the ups and downs of the music business), the constants are the enveloping sweetness (and yes, lightness) of Rochereau’s singing and the swaying expertise of the very finest players, including saxophonist Modero Mekanisi, longtime musical director of Rochereau’s Afrisa International band.

A pair of tracks from Tabu Ley’s hatchet-burying collaboration album with his old rival, legendary guitarist/vocalist Franco, kick off CD 2. The heartfelt beauty of “Kabasele in Memoriam” (a tribute to another Congolese musical great) and “Lisanga Ya Banganga” gets additional shine from the Parisian studio gloss, and that more contemporary sheen is likewise present on seven further gems from Rochereau’s final decade as a recording artist.

Delicately nuanced singing and unparalleled musicianship are again the standard, even as the music gets glossier on the New York and Paris-recorded “Sarah” and drum machine-driven “Exil-Ley” and “Le Glas a Sonne.”

Once the despotic Mobutu regime collapsed in Zaire in 1997, Rochereau returned to the renamed Democratic Republic of Congo and dedicated himself primarily to political concerns and the rebuilding of his home country. Nowadays he is retired from both music and politics, and in regard to the former we are blessed to now have the sequel to 2007’s first volume.

Like Volume 1, Volume 2 can’t possibly include everything of note. But also like its predecessor, it’s a sumptuous sampling of Congolese music’s greatest singer. Again, abundant and absorbing liner notes tell the story behind the music and the multifaceted man, including his role in the emergence of vocalist Mbilia Bel (herself the subject of a very good Sterns anthology focusing on the music she made while under Tabu Ley’s professional and personal wing).

So if you haven’t yet acquired the first installment of The Voice of Lightness, get it along with the second. And since they all go pretty much hand-in-hand, you really ought to have Sterns’ Mbilia Bel and Franco collections in order to take an extended trip to Congolese music heaven.

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