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Opening Ears to Urban African Pop : World music: Tabu Ley Rochereau, who performs tonight in Long Beach, is a missionary of sound.

August 24, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first taste of stardom came early to Tabu Ley Rochereau, when he played before a huge crowd--including an assortment of dignitaries, the king of Belgium among them--celebrating the 1955 opening of a new soccer stadium in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo.

City and nation long since have been known as Kinshasa and Zaire, respectively, and the stadium went on to gain a measure of fame in 1974 as site of one of the most celebrated boxing matches ever, the "rumble in the jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

But Rochereau, who performs tonight in Long Beach, remembers best that long-ago day when the stadium was new.

Just 14, his public singing had been confined before then to family gatherings and baptisms at his church. But he was invited to take part in a vocal competition to mark the stadium opening--and he won.

"It was maybe 80,000 people in the stadium; it was live on radio," Rochereau recalls. Before then he was just another youngster, but "that same day, I was very known."

Newspapers and radio stations called on him for interviews. More important for the young singer, "there was one big, big star--we call him the father of modern Zairian music--(who) called me to write a song for him."

That was Joseph Kabasele, known as Le Grand Kalle, who more than anyone was responsible for creating a distinctive Central African sound that fused Latin rumba with Congolese rhythms.

Rochereau began writing songs for him, at first without credit. "When I finished my school on 1959, I started to put my name on the records. The first song was 'Kalia.' That song was very, very popular, even to now. Even the musicians from Puerto Rico, Cuba and all over Africa, they put that song in their language and make a record with it."

Rochereau and Orchestre Afrisa International play tonight on the lawn at the Long Beach Museum of Art for the final concert of the museum's summer series. He was interviewed in late June on an earlier swing through Long Beach, the morning after he performed during the FESTAC African-Caribbean music festival at Rainbow Lagoon.

His singing has often been described as honey-voiced, but his speaking tone is deeper and more resonant. He chatted amiably in heavily accented English about his long career, pausing only occasionally to reach for words (French is the official language of Zaire, although Rochereau sings most often in Lingala, the main local language).

In a career than spans almost 40 years, Rochereau has released more than 100 albums in Zaire and has written, "I suppose, 2,200, maybe 2,300 songs. Because every year, I make new songs for me and for other musicians."

In the United States, Rochereau has been a steady presence on the touring scene and has even resided here periodically (he lived in Los Angeles for a spell in 1989 and is staying now in New Jersey). He is not as well known here, however, as Nigeria's King Sunny Ade, Senegal's Youssou N'Dour or Mali's Ali Farka Toure.

But it was Rochereau who opened Europe's eyes to urban African pop, with an astonishingly successful 1970 run (extended several times) of 26 performances in 18 days at the Paris Olympia, followed by a shorter engagement at the London Palladium.

"It was a big event for Africa," Rochereau said. "It was the first time that a black star came straight from Africa with a band to play the Olympia. . . . Before me, it was Miriam Makeba, but Miriam Makeba was based here (in the United States), and she played with American and Brazilian musicians."

In the decade before his European breakthrough, he was building his stature as a Pan-African star with few rivals. After several years of writing, singing and touring with Kabasele's seminal African Jazz, he joined the band full time in 1959 (other members at the time included Dr. Nico, who was Zaire's top guitarist until his death in 1985, and Cameroonian saxophone player Manu Dibango, still an international star).

When that band dissolved a few years later, Rochereau and Dr. Nico joined forces, but "only for two years," Rochereau said. "Him and me, we were very young, and (had) no experience. After two years, we started over again."

Both started their own bands--Nico had African Fiesta Sukisa, while Rochereau led African Fiesta National, which eventually became Afrisa International.

In the '60s, Rochereau created controversy when he introduced the use of a Western-style drum kit (now widely accepted in Afro-pop) and popularized elaborate, highly choreographed stage shows.

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