Tabu Ley is the man who brought us Congolese soukous music

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I spent a good part of my Thanksgiving weekend listening to this (music playing). It's always great to hear whistling in a pop-tune. This pop song though may have passed you by when it came out in 1973, but thanks to this ever-shrinking world, the Congolese song was re-released on CD a couple of years ago. The singer is Tabu Ley Rochereau from Congo, what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He died on Saturday, leaving behind a lifetime of music. Tabu Ley, as he's often known, was one of the innovators of the Congolese rhythm called soukous. Chris McCarus is a writer/reporter in Detroit, he's a friend of mine and a guitarist, and a few years ago he was on a personal mission to learn Congolese style soukous guitar and meet the stars of soukous. Chris, is that why you ended up in the home of Tabu Ley Rochereau in Congo?

Chris McCarus: It is and also, I had a jump start because I saw him in 1998 when he was performing in New York City before about 20 people and he wanted to go home and I said “ya know, God I'd like to back to Zaire too”. I'd never been there but I'd been in Africa for a few years before and I'd said to myself “well geez, wouldn't that be great to find him back in his home and see how he's progressing from, ya know, being in America and being lost after having been a big star and trying to regain his strength and maybe politics”.

Werman: So, just take us inside that home of Tabu Ley Rocherreau's for a moment.

McCarus: Well it was in **, a neighborhood of Kinshasa and you'd go to the end of this dirt road, I rode my motorcycle to the end of the dirt road and I knocked on the compound door. There was quite a bit of space between the door and then the house, that means there's a yard so that already meant, ya know, he's significant. Inside there were adult kids, there were little kids, you couldn't tell where the kids came from but at one point I talked to a young woman, about my age, ya know, late 20's/early 30's, I asked her “so how many kids does your dad have?” and the woman turned to a brother and said “how many kids does dad have?”, about 70.

Werman: 70 children. When you met Tabu Ley, he told you about another singer, the late great Franko, and here's what he said about Franko under Mobutu the dictator:

(recording of Tabu Ley) Mobutu put Franko 10 days in prison in Goro because he refused to sing for him.

Werman: Well, so he put him in prison for a few days because he refused to sing for the president. Did Tabu Ley Rochereau ever have to compromise his own politics in order to be a star in Zaire, under Mobutu? Did he ever have to kowtow?

McCarus: Well it's a little bit unclear, but let's listen to the tape.

(recording of Tabu Ley) Mobutu never asked me to sing for him, but the son

McCarus: He's saying there that he never sang for him, that he was never asked, and that his rival in the industry, Franko, got more caught up and lost in the battle with Mobutu and that he, Tabu Ley, managed to stay above the fray.

Werman: What will you recall most about being in Tabu Ley's company in Kinshasa, Chris?

McCarus: Well I envied him, he had it all. And Tabu Ley's mark is that hundreds of singers around Africa wanted to be like him and still do.
Werman: Chris McCarus speaking with us from WDET in Detroit about his memories of meeting the late and great Congolese musical innovator Tabu Ley Rochereau. Let's go out with a song that was a big hit for Tabu Ley when it came out in 1966. This one though was slowed down soukous, more of a listening song than a dancing song.

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Werman: It's called “mokolo nacocupo”, which means “the day of my death”. From a time when Tabu Ley had been thinking about death, though, according to those who knew him, not his own. From the Nan & Bill Harris studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. Thanks for being with us.

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