Tabu Ley Rochereau Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Davenport Hotel
The exotic sounds of African pop filled the lobby of the Davenport Hotel Saturday night, prompting hundreds of Spokanites to shed their inhibitions and dance the night away. Try as they might, however, they couldn’t match the moves of singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and his eye-popping troupe of singers and dancers.
Tabu Ley Rochereau and L’Orchestre Afrisa International are the best-known exponents of the Central African dance music known as soukous. Rochereau modernizes traditional Zairean rumbas by speeding them up and adding Western percussion and electric guitars. Elements of Latin, Caribbean and even American pop are tossed into the mix, and the result is an intoxicating blend of churning rhythms, chiming guitars and hightoned saxophones.
The twin lead guitars often resemble the sound of steel drums, completing the circle of borrowed music that began when Caribbean musicians cut down 50-gallon oil drums to make their version of African music. Two saxophones - played in soprano/alto and alto/tenor configurations - tend to play repeating lines that echo the singers’ chant-like exhortations, while congas, electric bass and drums lay down shifting pulses that flow below the mix like underwater currents, leading this way, then that.
At the heart of it all are Rochereau and his singers. He’s a honey-voiced tenor and his two male counterparts sing with him in close, high harmony. It’s a haunting, evocative sound not quite like anything known in Western music.
In Africa, Le Orchestre Afrisa International is 25 strong, but when he plays here, the number is pared. Saturday, 12 musicians and dancers performed.
Rochereau addressed the crowd with a thick French accent - French is the official language of Zaire - and sang in a native tongue known as Lingala, which adds a high touch of mystery to the songs. The songs are either romantic or patriotic in nature: In the past few years, Rochereau, who is enormously popular in Europe as well as on the African continent, has used his stardom as a platform to urge Zairean leaders to settle their differences peacefully.
Rochereau is a middle-age man who dresses colorfully - he wore silver shoes that sparkled in the spotlight, a leopard-skin vest and baggy, plum-colored pants - and moves with the grace and self-knowledge that come with experience.
Likewise, his male understudies were a study in cool. Their dance moves were subtle, easy and full of good humor.
But if the men were cool, the women were hot. Two young dancers in revealing wrap-around skirts took the stage periodically to give the place a serious jolt of sexuality, Central African-style. If you think MTV is full of suggestive moves, Tabu Ley’s dancers with their ball-bearing hips have something to show you.
Unlike, similar displays in Western entertainment, theirs was a celebration of sex, not a descent into it. And the folks who filled the Davenport lobby were pleased to join in.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.