Tabu Ley did for music what cell phones have done for banking

He is widely known for his invention of ‘soukous’, but his contribution to Africa’s first technological revolution – analogue music – was more transformational, writes Prof Calestous Juma

The passing of Tabu Ley Rochereau has robbed the world of the king of Congolese rumba. Through his legendary Orchestra Afrisa International, Tabu Ley was one of Africa’s most prolific songwriters and influential vocalists.

Tabu Ley’s contribution to the invention of soukous is widely known. But his role as one of the pioneers of Africa’s first technological revolution – recorded music and radio broadcasting – is less known. Africa’s analogue revolution preceded today’s digital revolution by five decades.

At 14, Tabu Ley recorded his first song, Bessama Muchacha, with the legendary Joseph ‘Le Grand Kallé’ Kabasele’s African Jazz in 1954. After finishing high school, he joined the band full time. In 1960, Kabasele assigned him to sing Independence Cha Cha to celebrate the birth of the Congolese nation.

With Dr Nico Kasanda, he pioneered soukous as a blend of Congolese folk music and Latin American, Cuban and Caribbean rumba as well as soul. From the two Congos as its epicentre, soukous diffused to much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Tabu Ley and his contemporaries such as Kasanda and Franco Luambo did for recorded music what mobile technology is doing for money transfer and mobile banking today. The combination of music recording and radio broadcasting provided Africa with an early opportunity to jump forward in an emerging technology. Its social, political, economic and cultural impact was profound.

Like mobile phones, the adoption of sound recording was unfettered by incumbent technologies and trade unions. In contrast, sound recording in the US encountered considerable resistance from unions organised to protect live musicians from technological unemployment.

Reflecting on the dilemma, Joseph Petrillo, the president of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) said that nowhere “in the mechanical age does the workman create the machine that destroys him, but that’s what happens to the musician when he plays for a recording. The iceman didn’t create the refrigerator, the coachman didn’t build the automobile”.

Analogue age

He added: “But the musician plays his music into a recorder and a short time later the radio station manager…says, ‘Sorry, Joe, we’ve got all your stuff on records, so we don’t need you any more’. And Joe’s out of a job.”

Access to new musical instruments, recording studios and radio provided the opportunity for young Africans to leapfrog into the analogue age. Congolese musicians experimented with a variety of Western music but came up with their own creations. They did the same with musical instruments. The guitar triumphed partly because it was plucked like the local thump piano (sanza or likembe).

In 1947, a Greek entrepreneur, Nicolas Jéronimidis, and his brother created Ngoma, one of the first recording companies in Kinshasa. A year later, Ngoma released Marie Louise by Wendo Kolosoy and Henri Bowana. Its enchantingly romantic edge made it an instant hit. It was whispered that Marie Louise could raise the dead if played at midnight. This word of mouth and promotion by Radio Congolia accounted for its blockbuster success.

The ensuing controversy in religious circles resulted in Kolosoy’s banishment from Kinshasa, imprisonment in Kisangani by Belgian authorities and subsequence excommunication from the Catholic Church.

It is against this revolutionary background that Tabu Ley and other African musical legends emerged. The late 1950s were a period of remarkable political promise and optimism. The struggle for African independence was under way and the wind of freedom and creativity was sweeping across the continent. The two Congos were a meeting place for a diversity of African and international cultures.

Kabasele served as mentor for the young musical innovators with his African Jazz acting as a business incubator. The analogue revolution spawned bands in the same way today’s digital revolution is creating business start-ups. New bands were in every respect technology-based start-ups. Many were formed but only a few flourished. Those that did relied heavily on scouting for new talent, good human resource management and access to radio.

Tabu Ley’s generation pushed existing instruments to their limits and generated new creations of their own.

For example, Franco’s band invented the mi-solo (half solo) between lead and rhythm guitars, a technique where notes in a chord are played in a sequence rather than in a simultaneous pattern. These and many other creations would have resulted in new musical instruments. But they lacked the relevant engineering capability to translate their ideas into new instruments.

Beyond his music, Tabu Ley’s legacy includes other notable lessons for Africa’s second technological revolution. First, he spent his entire life nurturing young talent, an essential feature of any creative industry. He gave back to society as much as he received from his mentors. Second, Tabu Ley put considerable effort in expanding the diversity of talent by identifying and promoting women musicians.

M’Bilia Bel

His biggest successes included M’Bilia Bel and Kishila Ngoyi (known artistically as Faya Tess). Franco emulated Tabu Ley with the recruitment of Jolie Detta (of Massu fame). Third, Tabu Ley retained strong though uneasy interest in public service and later acted as a cabinet minister under Laurent Kabila following the fall of the despot Joseph Mobutu.

The passing of Tabu Ley marks punctuation to Africa’s long and winded journey of technological innovation. It is both a reminder of how a small number of dedicated people combined two emerging technologies to create a cultural revolution. African culture in general and music in particular provide a powerful platform up, through which the continent can jump into a wide range of new industries.


– Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Programme at Harvard Kennedy School. He co-chairs the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation. He is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press).

Twitter @calestous