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'Voice of Lightness' Revives African Pop in U.S.

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'Voice of Lightness' Revives African Pop in U.S.

'Voice of Lightness' Revives African Pop in U.S.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The biggest pop music style in Africa in the 1970s and '80s was the rumba known as soukous, which originated in the Congo. One of the chief exporters of soukous has a new double-disc retrospective.

Here's music critic Robert Christgau.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Of soukous' many stars, two ruled: the gruff guitarist-vocalist Luambo Franco and his mellifluous rival, singer-bandleader, Tabu Ley Rochereau. There have been two great Franco collections available for most of this decade. Now, a two-CD compilation evens things up for Rochereau, it's called "The Voice of Lightness."

(Soundbite of "The Voice of Lightness")

Mr. TABU LEY ROCHEREAU (Singer): (singing in foreign language)

CHRISTGAU: There are many gorgeous voices in African pop. And since we don't understand the lyrics, we may have trouble sorting them out. South Africa's township jive king, Mahlathini, and Senegal's Sufi internationalist, Youssou N'Dour, breached that barrier with their songwriting and arranging, and so does Rochereau. He didn't invent the multi-guitar seben break, that is soukous' trademark, but he was crucial in developing it. Here's a lovely seben from a 1969 tune called "Christine(ph)."

(Soundbite of song "Christine")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

CHRISTGAU: Rochereau was always an ambitious exploiter of foreign sounds. Pay attention and you can make out surf guitar, James Brown dynamics, and what are said to be the first Afropop trap drums, or his tribute to the wah-wah pedal on a song onomatopeiacally entitled (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROCHEREAU: (Singing in foreign language)

CHRISTGAU: Although Rochereau had his thoughtful side, he was giddy to romantic smarm. He was no satirist and rarely criticized Joseph Mobutu's brutal Zaire regime. Yet the early '90s found him an exile in Los Angeles anyway. He didn't return to Congo until after the revolution and post-Mobutu. He has served as a cabinet minister, a parliament member and a vice governor of Kinshasa. Nevertheless, we should think of Rochereau and admire him primarily as a purveyor of pure beauty.

(Soundbite of soap jingle)

CHRISTGAU: In this unforgettable tune, is Omo the name of his sweetheart? Is it the Lingala term for some civic virtue? No. Omo was a laundry soap whose manufacturer paid Rochereau for a jingle and got a doozy.

BLOCK: The double-disc set of Tabu Ley Rochereau is called "The Voice of Lightness." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

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