Veteran Congolese musician Tabu Ley, who died in a Belgian hospital last weekend aged 73, was well-known for his excellent, free-flowing compositions, but he also excelled at something totally different: his ability to play the father figure role to all with whom he interacted.
That towering personality stands true for him even in death, both in Congo and Brussels.
Today, for instance, his funeral arrangements begin in Brussels, when his family, friends, fans and well-wishers in the large Congolese and African community living here are expected to converge on the funeral home to pay their last respects to this great African man.
And, tomorrow, an advance party comprising some family members and his former Afrisa International Band musicians, will fly to Kinshasa ahead of the return of his body for burial.
His former band manager, Mekanisi Modero, who is now based in the United States, will also fly to Kinshasa to organise a musical send-off for his former boss in the form of a concert, expected to be held next week, probably after the Monday burial.
FRUITFUL FAMILY MAN
But, just as he was prolific at making music, Tabu Ley was also quite fruitful in the family sense.
He sired nearly 50 children, who are today scattered all over the world. However, only a few of them have followed his footsteps into music.
The numbers might have been many, but he is said to have tried to maintain contact with those that he could.
Even in his twilight years, deeply ill and living either in Kinshasa, Paris or Brussels, Tabu Ley worked hard to play his fatherly role to all his children, borne of various mothers.
That is how, between 2009 and 2011, when he was being treated as an outpatient at a Parisian hospital, he lived with daughter Inna and her mother Melanie in Creteil on the outskirts of Paris.
He may not have been a constant figure in their lives, but somehow the two felt obligated to be there for him, with him.
He was a doting father, his admirers say, who did everything to ensure that his children had a good education.
And although he never discouraged them from venturing into music early, he motivated them to have a solid foundation in education.
And ‘The Family Man’, as he was often fondly referred to, demonstrated that love by dedicating some of his songs to his spouses, fans and children.
Tabu, who earlier in his career in the 1960s was simply known as Pascal Rochereau, had a musical journey that spanned over four decades, starting in the late 1950s when he joined Orchestre African Jazz, headed by the legendary Joseph Kabasele, Le Grand Kalle.
The group featured the renowned solo guitarist Dr Nico Kasanda alongside his brother Charles Mwamba Dechaud.
But rivalry between the musicians saw Dr Nico and Tabu leave African Jazz to form African Fiesta in the early 1960s, and Dr Nico went on to relesae the ever-popular hit, Bilombe Ya Africa (African Champions), an indirect jab at their musical rivals.
But the two also parted company, with Nico forming African Fiesta Sukisa and Tabu birthing African Fiesta Nationale.
Then, after years of the big names on the Kinshasa circuit being known by their French first names, Mobutu Sese Seko climbed onto the platform breathing a firebrand cultural revolution known as ‘Authenticity’ and forcing many artistes to shed their Christian names.
Kabasele gave up the name Joseph to take on a long identity that praised his supposed toughness, Pascal became Tabu Ley, while his biggest rival on the Congolese music scene then, Franco, became Luambo Luanzo Makiadi.
The names might have changed, but the quality of their compositions in the Lingala beat that spread like wildfire throughout Africa remained the same, if not better.
Tabu, for instance, maintained his fine, urbane touch to his music, as well as his solid connections with Kenya.
Many of his fans here will recall his 1982 visit with Mbilia Bel, when they released Kamunga. Later, in 1984, Mbilia’s Nakei Nairobi and Twende Nairobi — the first a love song and the other a political hit in praise of former President Daniel arap Moi’s Nyayo clarion call — became local anthems, both on radio and the dance floor.
The two musician’s relationship went on to spawn the super-hits for which Mbilia is famed, including Nadina, Beyanga, Eswi Yo Wapi, and Nakei Nairobi.
Nairobi might have been attractive to the Congolese because of its modern recording studios, but the consummate family man looked beyond the microphone during his Nairobi calls to scout for opportunities for his children, and two of his daughters, Mireille and Collette, studied at the Utalii College in the ’80s.
The crooner has been in poor health and confined to a wheelchair since he suffered a stroke in 2008, an anti-climax to a life well-lived and a career that had been the envy of many, not only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also the rest of Africa.
That stroke was a setback for a man who, throughout his career, was known not only for his clear tenor voice, but also his nimble feet.
For, among the great musicians on the continent, Tabu Ley would have taken the accolades for being a great dancer hands-down.
This was a man who, in his heyday, was agile, stylish and a fantastic choreographer of the rhumba dance.
The man who introduced the sojourn beat to Linagala, the new up-tempo beat giving more emphasis on the drum beats and horns. Listen to it on the hit Sambuluma, released in the early ’70s.
When his health deteriorated, he relinquished his position as Minister of Culture and Arts, Sports, Youth and Leisure, and Tourism in the City-Province of Kinshasa.
Prior to being appointed minister, he had held the post of vice-governor of the city of Kinshasa, under the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) party. Earlier, he had also served as a nominated MP, alongside Tshala Muana, the ‘Queen of Mutwashi’.
Last week, as his condition deteriorated at the St Lucas Hospital in Brussels, where he passed on, he was in the constant company of daughter Inna and two sons, including Mark, a France-based journalist.
They witnessed him receive the final holy communion from a Catholic priest in hospital last Friday morning, and all were in his room when he breathed his last the following day.
Tabu Ley may be gone, but his rich discography will live on, and present and future generations will continue to enjoy fine music from one of -Africa’s greatest artistes.
TRIBUTE FROM PEERS
About two years ago crooner Koffi Olomide paid tribute to Tabu Ley by reproducing some of his popular oldies under the album ‘Koffi Chant Tabu Ley’, redone during a LIVE show at a hotel in Kinshasa. Koffi reportedly singled out Tabu Ley as his mentor in vocals prowess.
Similarly, fellow musician Papa Wemba has praised Tabu Ley for having inspired many Congolese singers.
Veteran KBC radio presenter James Onyango Joel of the ‘Zilizopendwa’ fame recalled recently, the hit song ‘Maze’ was replayed by the rebels when they temporarily took over the KBC studios during the abortive 1982 coup attempt.
From then the song became a very popular club and radio hit, he said. Nairobi-based musician Ken Makokha of Ulinzi Orchestre says he got inspired to play the saxophone after listening to the horns in ‘Maze’, popular for the catch phrase “I love you, baby touch me”.
The soft-spoken Dino Vangu (Ya Dino), after leaving Afrisa International in 1985, continued being an integral part of the group, where he was the band master (Chef d’ Orchestre).
His unique solo guitar style features on some Afrisa songs like ‘Eboue’.
When he left the band to settle in Paris, his place was taken up by Huit Kilos, who now lives in the US. In Paris, Dino has set up a session group comprising his Paris-based rumba counterparts.
He has also released several albums featuring both new and old songs, backed up by Faya Tess and Lo-Benelle, an up and coming singer doing cover versions of most of Mbilia Bel’s songs.
Last year when Tabu Ley returned to be feted back home in Kinshasa , Dino played the solo guitar during concerts to fete the fallen star.
The future looks bright for Dino and other former members of Afrisa International as they endeavour to revive the band and keep Tabu Ley’s music alive.
This is not your usual musician.
Described variously as “a very bright student”, Koffi earned an academic scholarship to France to study Business Economics.
He has also established himself as outstanding in stage shows. For his effort, ‘Effrakata’, released in 2001-2002, Koffi received four Kora Awards on a single night at the annual Kora Awards in South Africa for 2002 and 2003, including the award for Best African Artiste.
More recently, he has won the Kora Award for “Best African Artist of The Decade”, leading to the establishment of one of his many aliases as the ‘Quadra Kora Man’.
He has often showered praise on Tabu Ley for having inspired him as a singer. Koffi did cover versions of 40 of Tabu Ley’s popular oldies.
Sam Mangwana was born on February 21, 1945 in Kinshasa to parents of Angolan background.
He was a member of Franco’s hugely popular TP OK Jazz and Tabu Ley’s African Fiesta Nationale. As Tabu Ley pointed out during a telephone interview with this writer in 2009, other former members of Afrisa have gone on to establish successful solo careers.
They include singer Faya Tess, who lives in Paris, guitarist Nseka Huit Kilos, Dodo Munoko, Wawali Bonane and band manager Modero, all who live in the US.
The group’s members who remained in Kinshasa include guitarists Dave Makondele and Master Mukonkole, both of whom were in the band that last visited Kenya in 1995. Mangwana is now based in Luanda, Angola.
The songstress had a child with Tabu Ley -named Melodie, in the 1980s before going on to become a refined and mature performer.
Her songs, among them ‘Mobali na Ngai Wana (This Husband of Mine’), remains popular to date.
The song, composed by Tabu Ley is an adaptation of a traditional song in Kikongo, and in it M’bilia Bel praises her husband as being handsome and successful and stresses the fact that even though he has the opportunity to choose from any of Kinshasa’s beautiful women, he chose her.
Other songs that blazed the charts during that period include ‘Balle a Terre’ and ‘Bameli Soy’.
In 1987 Tabu Ley recruited another female artiste to accompany M’bilia Bel.
Kishila Ngoyi was here real name, but she was known by her artistic name, Faya Tess. It was with this new lineup that Afrisa embarked on a tour of East Africa that took in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, culminating in the album Nadina, which had Lingala and Swahili versions of the title song.
WHAT FANS SAID
Jimmy Wayuni, Nairobi
Though I couldn’t understand most of the words, I was inspired by the strong, catchy beats.
Kaminju wa Kiemo, Nairobi
I have kept collections of most of his favourite songs, which I will always listen to.
Maximillah Barasa, Bungoma
I grew up dancing to Tabu Ley’s music. My father kept a big collection of his work and we always enjoyed it, especially Maze and later Muzina.
Bruce Ogaga, Nairobi
I have been playing Tabu Ley’s songs over and over since his death. There will be no other inspiring singer like him.
Achieng’ Abura, Afro-Jazz musician
Tabu Ley’s passing was an anti-climax to my Jubilee celebrations. He is one musician I grew up listening to and who inspired my style.
Machua Waithaka, Nairobi businessman
I remember hosting him in 1995 at the Makuti Club, South B, where he did an impromptu performance of Muzina alongside the resident band.