For some reason I’ve been revisiting a lot of old reggae & African music lately, so it was inevitable that I would get to M’bilia Bel eventually. Her story is one of those ‘Star is Born’ -type sagas; plucked from obscurity by a big star, joins him, outgrows him, leaves him…you know how that one goes I’m sure.
M’bilia’s benefactor was Tabu Ley Rochereau, a Congolese singer and bandleader of some renown, whose Orchestre Afrisa International were one of the biggest acts in Africa during the ’70’s and ’80’s. Tabu Ley spotted M’bilia singing and dancing in Sam Mangwana’s band and recruited her to the cause. In a musical format dominated by male singers, M’bilia’s sweet soprano made a strong impression and a series of records cut in the early to mid-80’s saw Orchestre Afrisa overhaul their long-time rivals, Franco’s TPOK Jazz as the leading soukous band of the time.
I caught up with M’bilia when London-based Stern’s began releasing her albums over here in the mid-80’s. In those days, the music originated from Zaire, which is a whole lot sexier and more user-friendly than the current ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’ mouthful. M’bilia’s singing style was really a perfect fit with the chiming electric guitars of Orchestre Afrisa and albums like ‘Boya Ye’ simply swept you along with their loping rhumba rhythms and sweet harmonies, becoming part of the early wave of African music that was making an impact in Britain at that time.
M’bilia & Tabu Ley were actually an item and apparently had a child together, but things were clearly not all sweetness and light between them. Tabu Ley made the mistake of drafting a second female singer(Faya Tess) into the band and M’bilia did not react well. She left Tabu Ley and his band in 1987 and eventually resurfaced in Paris where she worked with the intriguingly-named guitarist Ringo Star before eventually moving to the USA .
It could be argued with some accuracy that M’bilia & Tabu Ley had more success in their time together than they ever have done apart. Even so, M’bilia Bel can genuinely claim to be the most popular African female singer since Miriam Makeba. Of course, styles move on quickly in African music and by the mid-to-late 80’s, the style of sweet, evenly-paced music favoured by Orchestre Afrisa was already being overtaken by a faster-paced style typified by Kanda Bongo Man and Pablo Lubadika Porthos.
Tabu Ley, who turns 70 next year if his ‘stage age’ is to be believed, has gone into politics and when last heard of was actually a Minister in the D.R.C. government. M’bilia, meanwhile, is apparently based in Seattle and still tours occasionally in the USA.
Update: 13/11/09 – For more on Tabu Ley’s situation, follow this link….