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It's Not Graceland, but It's Sanctuary : Pop music: For Africa's Elvis--Tabu Ley Rochereau--Anaheim has become a home away from home--when he's not on the road.

August 16, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — Modero Mekanisi, who plays saxophone for African pop music giant Tabu Ley Rochereau, walked along a quiet street here on a sizzling summer day and stretched his hands skyward.

"You see?" he said. "Anaheim is like Kinshasa!"

It probably is safe to say that the home of Disneyland and the teeming capital of Zaire in central Africa are not often compared. But the two cities half a world apart do have at least one thing in common: warm weather year-round--which is something Rochereau and the members of his Orchestre Afrisa International missed desperately in New Jersey, the latest on the long list of former addresses they've compiled since leaving strife-torn Zaire reluctantly in 1988.

And so it is that a faded blue-and-white Craftsman home in suburban Orange County has become the latest base of operations for this storied band on the run.

Ten of the band's 14 members live in the rented two-story house and its apartment-style addition in back, above a garage where they sometimes rehearse. Two additional members live in Pomona, and two female dancers live in Los Angeles; one had stopped by with a bag of groceries on this Saturday, on this rare long weekend between concert tours.

During a two-hour interview with Rochereau and Mekanisi, a stream of sleepy-eyed musicians straggled downstairs from morning showers; from the back of the house came the sounds of African pop recordings. The living room was packed wall-to-wall with couches but almost free of decoration, as befits a group that spends so much of its life on the road.

Family was notably absent. Rochereau's wife and children live in Paris, where there is a sizable community of Zairian expatriates, but as the United States increasingly becomes a major market for his music, the singer finds that the United States is where he must stay.

Pioneers of the internationally successful dance music called soukous, Rochereau and his band have filled stadiums the world over. "He seems to be the best known, most respected African musician," says E. Michael Harrington, chairman of the music composition department at Belmont University in Nashville and a teacher of world music classes there and at the University of Alabama. "He's been around so long, has so many recordings. . . ."

*

For a man who has been called the African Elvis, his life of crowded quarters and separation from family is Spartan, to say the least. But he says it is relaxing to return here on breaks from the near-constant touring. In Anaheim, he can while away some of his precious quiet time on his wooden porch in the sun. Or he can hold court at his favorite local restaurant--a Norm's.

"To be here is better. The weather is better. . . . We feel more at home here on the West Coast," he said. It's not just the weather; they also like the neighbors. "On the East Coast, everybody's busy. Sometimes you don't know your neighbor," said Mekanisi. Since moving here a year ago, he noted, band members have been invited to several parties on this street of apartment buildings and older homes. "From the first day, they welcomed us."

Any sense of home is accepted gratefully by Rochereau who, at 54, has been traveling almost as long as he can remember. "Since I was a kid, all my time I'm on a trip," said Rochereau, who speaks English but who gave his more complex answers in French, to be translated by Mekanisi. "In Africa, in Europe, I'm always moving."

His most recent tour took the band to Kenya and Uganda for a month. He squeezed in a 24-hour stop in Paris to visit his family, and was off again. After a show tonight at the Long Beach Museum of Art, the band hits the road for a swing through Northern California.

Rochereau's already nomadic life became even less rooted in 1988 when he left Zaire, which was crumbling politically and economically. A stream of Zairian musicians, including such international stars as Kanda Bongo Man and Papa Wemba, left in the '80s and settled in Paris. But Rochereau moved from place to place on an itinerary dictated by his exhaustive tour schedule.

From Kinshasa, the band moved first to Virginia, from there to Paris, then briefly to Los Angeles and then to New Jersey. They knew of Anaheim because their manager, David Gaar, had been an Orange County resident. Gaar moved recently to San Francisco but Mekanisi, who has been with Rochereau for 24 years, has been taking about bringing his own wife and children here from London--a sign that the band may stay awhile.

These days, the band plays a steady stream of clubs, concert halls and festivals in the United States. It also tours regularly in Europe, Africa, even Japan. But one place it has not appeared since 1988 is Zaire.

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