By Drew Ailes
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By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By Tom Murphy
Unlike those musicians who play up a variety of interests, perhaps to demonstrate that there is more to them than their tunes, Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Zaire-born leader of L'Orchestre Afrisa International, insists that music is his be-all and end-all. "I'm writing one book about my life," he says. "I started it a long time ago, and I think that after one more year, it will be all written. It is not biographical, but it is my life. I can tell you the title: My Life Is My Song. Everything I did in my life is around the song. Around music. I met many people from the music. I got married because of music. I have very many children because of music. My money comes from music. My clothes come from music. If you listen, you know that life moves to the music. Music is life."
The brand of music in which Ley specializes on his current Rounder Records release, a hits compilation entitled Africa Worldwide--35th Anniversary Album, is a danceable, big-band style called soukous. Characterized by slick guitars, brass sections, lilting vocals, tom-toms, cowbells and native drums, the subgenre also bears the mark of assorted Latin American rhythms such as salsa, rumba, merengue and cha-cha. It first appeared in the Fifties and since then has spawned three true superstars: Le Grand Kalle, who created the neotraditional mode; Franco, a hugely influential guitarist/ composer/vocalist; and Ley, a singer, arranger and composer of literally thousands of ditties. The only member of this triumvirate still among the living, Ley, 56, remains an icon in Africa, but he now makes his home in Los Angeles, a metropolis he speaks of in positive terms.
"I like the place. The weather is much like in my country," he muses. "It was very hard to do, to leave my country. It is not easy to be outside. But I haven't good security if I am back home. It is not safe for me. But do not think that I came to this country as a refugee. I don't want to be thought of as a refugee. I am a good musician. I'm working. I have my resident papers and my visa. But the political people in my country...ah, you know."
Born in the portion of Africa once known as the Belgian Congo, Ley adopted the Rochereau name during his school days, when he was the only student who knew the best-known owner of the moniker (a French military hero). He soon proved to be precocious in other arenas, too. "When I was fourteen, still in school, I wrote songs," he recalls. "There were some of the greatest bands of that time in my town, Kinshasa, and I gave these songs to some of the musicians in the best band, African Jazz. They were very excited about the things I was writing. They go to their leader, Kabaselle, and say that he must hear these songs. That's how I began my career."
Before maturing into a bandleader, Ley played in and composed for Kabaselle's outfit. He also collaborated with Franco, even though many observers saw them as rivals. "We were friends," Ley insists. "Sometimes we had fighting between us--a contest for who had the most popular and best band. It was normal for us to fight, like two football teams. But after the performance, we were just two friends." He adds, "Like the political administrations that have often thought my music too subversive, we were two people who had the same worry, Franco and me. But now Franco is dead. With the security situation, I don't want to follow the same way."
He concedes, however, that Zaire had its advantages. "I was working with very many musicians, and my band was very, very big--sometimes forty, fifty people," he notes. "Now that I am outside, it's going to cost me too much to keep that many. Accommodation and transportation in the United States is very expensive. So now I sometimes use eleven, sometimes twelve. But no worries. All the sound is still there."
That sound, Ley stresses, is "at least 60 percent true to our Zaire and African music. But while my early big influences were Latin American, I receive a lot of other influences from Western music, like rhythm and blues, soul music, funk and jazz. The good things we take. The bad we leave behind. But I don't want to go far from the roots. Every year or so I will go back to Africa, not just to my country, but to Nairobi, Kenya, Brazzaville, Tanzania, Uganda. And I'm changing musicians. The new ones come from Zaire to bring the roots from home."
Listeners in this country are responding to his work, Ley points out. He's especially thrilled about all the "American kids who come. And sometimes, when I go to Seattle or somewhere for a festival, American musicians want to play the soukous music with me. Myself, I am so surprised by it. But excited, too. Our music was starting to get away. But the young people, the American people, the kids, they are helping to bring it back. If one listens, one will remember."