Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tabu Ley Rochereau

  • Tabu Ley [Shanachie, 1984] B+
  • Babeti Soukous [RealWorld, 1989] B+
  • Man from Kinshasa [Shanachie, 1991] A-
  • Africa Worldwide: 35th Anniversary Album [Rounder, 1996] A-
  • The Voice of Lightness [Sterns Africa, 2007] A+
  • The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 [Sterns Africa, 2010] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Tabu Ley [Shanachie, 1984]
Comprising six recent full-length dance tracks by the bandleader whose clarion baritone has made him the biggest singer in Zaire for twenty-five years, this is a well-designed compilation documenting Africa's dominant pop style. Most of the cuts have real tunes, with French lyrics accessible to a wide range of high school graduates, and two feature his female protegee M'bilia Bel. But Rochereau is a showbiz pro because he always goes for what he knows works, and outsiders may well find his up-up-up propulsion steady-state if not a little wearing. B+

Babeti Soukous [RealWorld, 1989]
More showbiz if not Vegas than his great rival/collaborator Franco, soukous's surviving coinventor is a cornball so seigneurial that I've walked out on him twice, and at first I found this hectically eclectic live-in-the-studio best-of hard to listen to. But when I gave it a chance its constituent parts snuck up on me--the procession of dance beats and guitar styles, the female vocal cameos, even the Smokey-styled/stolen ballad. Take it as the Zairean equivalent of Sunny Adé's Juju Music--an unguided tour through a long, deep pop tradition. B+

Man from Kinshasa [Shanachie, 1991]
The king placates soukous fashion instead of following it, and having kicked off with an electrokickdrum that's never so forward again, his third U.S.-release variety show eschews total speed trip. Catchy tunes, plangent pace changes, Cuban/Ethiopian horns, musette accordion--and enough rippling guitar to keep them coming back for more. A-

Africa Worldwide: 35th Anniversary Album [Rounder, 1996]
Except when Franco showed him how on Omona Wapi, Tabu Ley never conquered his schlock habit Stateside. Even the 1989 best-of he recut for RealWorld sounded like cummerbunds and leisure suits. But as Kinshasa transformed itself from hellhole to charnel house, Afropop's smarmiest godfather withdrew not just to Paris but L.A. Then, with a quick new guitarist and dulcet vocal acolytes helping him exploit a nostalgia it would be cruel to deny, he rerecorded a magnificent dozen of the thousand or so songs he churned out when Zaire was young, and in the great tradition of classic Afropop, their airy grace still projects an illusion of possibility. This old hero no longer plans to conquer the world. He's just grateful he can remember how it felt to be looking ahead. A-

The Voice of Lightness [Sterns Africa, 2007]
The master of Congolese song is the rare singer whose sound signifies like a great jazz horn player's--hear, for instance, how his velvety tenor lifts his duets with his Diana Ross-like consort Mbilia Bel on her accompanying compilation. And that was toward the end of the long peak that begins very near the beginning of this sumptuous 29-track double. Dividing neatly between his African Fiesta National and Afrisa International band, the name switch that more or less marked his realization that first the double-sided 45 and then the LP were means to the authenticité of long, instrumentally expansive recordings, so it's more songful on the 18-track 1961-1969 disc and more grooveful on the 11-track 1969-1977. But even toward the end, with "soukous" becoming a byword, the lilt of classic rumba gently prevails. A+

The Voice of Lightness Vol. 2: Congo Classics 1977-1993 [Sterns Africa, 2010]
With Mobutu squeezing every fantasy of affluence out of Congolese life as he strove to consolidate his power, soukous's greatest vocalist felt the pinch as recording studios, pressing plants, and his own label broke down. And though his velvet tenor remained strong and flexible as he turned 40 and then 50, his spirit faltered. As usual, Ken Braun makes the most of a discographical briar patch, most of it originally released as dance-length two-sided 45s. There's nothing approaching a clinker on these two CDs--mourning a teacher or going disco, Tabu Ley remains an ineradicable rumba original, a lover of melody and leader of men. But only at the start of disc two does the music enter the transcendant realm where the first volume lives: with "Kabasele in Memoriam" and "Lisanga Ya Banganga," both long known to American soukous fans from Franco & Rochereau's Omona Wapi, whose other two tracks woudld flow right in as well. Conclusion: although Rochereau has lived a longer and happier life, his rival and coequal probably lived an edgier and deeper one. A

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