In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire (and before that, the Belgian Congo), a style of music known as soukous originated. It’s a popular dance style that emerged from African rumba and infected and influenced music all over West Africa from the 1960’s up through the 80’s (and beyond) with its sung intros and lengthy, danceable guitar segments which could stretch upwards of a half hour in live shows. The two undisputed giants of the music are Franco and Rochereau. Franco is the leader of the group T.P. OK Jazz, known as the “Sorcerer of the Guitar” for his seemingly effortless, fluid, hypnotic guitar lines, while Tabu Ley Rochereau is the leader of Afrisa International, the great rival band to OK Jazz, and Rochereau’s high, sweet singing is the expression of one of the most renowned and distinctive voices in all of 20th century African music. Their career trajectories are both detailed on a series of superb 2-disc collections released by Sterns Music – Franco’s on Francophonic Vols. 1 & 2, and Tabu Ley Rochereau’s on The Voice of Lightness (only the second volume is currently in print). But this intersection of both of their careers is one of the high points of either one.
This collaborative effort makes the most of what they both do, merging Franco’s rougher, rawer style with Tabu Ley’s slicker, more plainly lovely version into something unique in both their catalogs. To this end, they’re helped considerably by guitarist Michelino, who defected from Afrisa International to OK Jazz in the late 70’s but plays with both of his bosses here, and Matalanza whose terrific saxophone is given some leads, but is heard mostly as part of a great horn section.
The record kicks off with killer groove, “Lisanga Ya Ba Nganga” a highlight in the extensive body of work of either of the artists. It finds both of them doing what they do best, with lyrics that call out nods Franco and Rochereau, but also to Michelino who interlocks with Franco here to create a shimmering dance groove that’s irresistible, while Rochereau’s sweet voice mixes with Franco’s rougher, lower one up top. The next track, “Ngungi” features less guitar, and provides more of a vocal showcase, an interesting turn for Franco who, while no slouch in the vocal department, is best known for his guitar and who often hired the best singers around to take the vocal spot while he concentrated on the rest of the music. Rochereau is of course resplendent again in the vocal department. Third cut is the title song and it’s another uptempo slayer to get you on your feet. Franco again earns his title as Sorcerer and Michelino is again called out in song to weave intricate patterns against the Sorcerer’s work. It’s also the only cut on the album clocking in at under 8 minutes, tagged at a mere 7:58. The record closes with “Kabassele in Memoriam” a heartfelt tribute to Rochereau’s former bandleader and the spiritual father of all rumba/soukous, Joseph Kabassele, who died shortly before the recording of this album. He is known more widely by his recording name Le Grand Kallé and has been called the "Father of Congolese Music” for his innovations, his patronage of the country’s music, and his broad influence, and the song is a gorgeous farewell and a spiritual passing of the torch from his works to those of successive generations. He himself is the tributee of yet another great two-disc collection recently released by Sterns: His Life, His Music.
Franco himself would be dead of AIDS within six years of the making this album while Rochereau went into exile in 1988 in France (and later California), only returning to Zaire after the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed in 1997. But though he kept recording, his career never again reached the heights of popularity or artistic integrity that he enjoyed from the 60’s through his exile. This album stands as a monument to the amazing and enduring powers of both musicians, and hopefully as a starting point to exploring the works of both of them (and their godfather, Le Grand Kallé as well).
- Patrick Brown