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Pop Music Reviews : Joyful Noise of Tabu Ley Rochereau

August 26, 1994|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau sometimes is billed, in the United States at least, as "the Elvis Presley of African music."

It's an attention-grabbing appellation, to say the least, but in Rochereau's case it's actually somewhat accurate: He does blend distinct musical elements in an invigorating new way.

For his performance Wednesday at the Long Beach Museum of Art, however, a Jerry Lee Lewis comparison might have been even more apt, given the way he frequently left the audience: breathless- ahhh .

In recent years, Rochereau has been an inconsistent performer--Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, an ardent booster of Afro-pop, says he has twice walked out on Rochereau shows in frustration.

But there was nothing inconsistent about the two sets here, concluding the museum's summer outdoor concert series. And the only thing frustrating about them was that even at an effervescent 2 1/2-hours total, they were over all too quickly.

At 53, Rochereau appeared almost frisky, often trading silky dance moves with others in his 13-member Orchestre Afrisa International band. His legendary honey-soaked tenor showed a few burrs around the edges early on, but such husky traces took nothing away from his vocals.

The only sign that age might be taking its toll came during the second set when he turned over a good portion of the lead vocals to one of his three fellow singers.

In interviews, Rochereau often stresses the importance of the two- or three-part song structure that typifies soukous music, the Caribbean-influenced style of Afro-pop he helped develop in the 1950s, and he has criticized some performers who omit the lead-up sections and play only the invigorating up-tempo portion.

In Long Beach, with songs that were insidiously infectious, he persuasively made his case against taking musical shortcuts. He also demonstrated--without even seeming to try--how much joyful release Western pop misses with its cut-to-the-chase reliance on three-minute, single-tempo structure.

His songs--he estimates that he has written more than 2,000 during his nearly 40-year career--usually open in a relaxed mid-tempo that puts the focus on the lyrics. After several minutes at that pace, the band--without warning--cranks the tempo up about 10%, a barely perceptible shift that nevertheless pumps up the energy level for the musicians as well as for the crowd.

Then after a few more minutes, there's a rhythmic break during which the drummer strikes three or four solo shots on the snare and the band moves into the third section, or sebene , which becomes irresistibly danceable.

*

Although that structure was repeated in most of the dozen songs the group played, the melodies, instrumental textures and energy never sounded repetitious.

Credit that to Rochereau's endlessly dynamic Orchestre Afrisa International. Some Afro-pop bands sink into a muddy blur after an hour or so of songs that often consist of just two chords--dominant-tonic, dominant-tonic--for 10 to 15 minutes at a stretch.

Rochereau's band showed its skill at song arrangements that were kept fresh by constantly shifting tempos and a steady stream of new instrumental accents.

A perfect example was "Linganga Nalinga Yo," which translates into a plea for all people to love one another. Featuring singer Dodo Munoko, the song started out as a slightly Africanized cha-cha (one of the key features of soukous is the use of speeded-up rumbas and other Latin dance rhythms).

It shifted briefly to a driving 4/4 beat (as close as the group came to a rock music sound) before it kicked up again into a peppery sebene full of galloping, octave-hopping bass lines, punchy sax fills and truly heroic work on the drum kit by Masibu Pa'rigo Nsazi. All this was overlaid with cascading guitar lines from Huit-Kilos Nseka and Makondele Loko Bingi. Dancers Wala Mawete and Ampo Biyeye added good-natured sensuality.

*

When everything was clicking, the drummer beamed a grin at the guitarists, who returned wide smiles that telegraphed the obvious joy their music brings them. What a welcome contrast to all those rock guitarists whose anguished grimaces make it seem that all they're getting from their instruments is a couple of thousand volts.

The biggest surprise of the evening was Rochereau's arrangement of Lennon-McCartney's "Let It Be," which he translated into the Zairian language of Lingala, and sang as "La-La Be."

When he left the stage, drenched in perspiration, there was no stentorian voice announcing that "Tabu Ley has left the building," just a group of fans continuing to chant "Tabu Ley! Tabu Ley!" And there was no question that this particular Elvis is still very much alive.

* Tabu Ley Rochereau and Orchestre Afrisa International play Saturday at 10 p.m. at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. $15. (213) 650-0247. Also, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Street Scene '94 festival, Gaslamp Quarter, downtown San Diego, on the Miller Genuine Draft/KKOS Mardi Gras stage. Festival admission: $22 per day or $39 for a two-day pass until Sept. 8; $25 per day starting Sept. 9. (619) 268-9025.

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