The Voice of Lightness: Congo Classics 1961-1977
does not need re-evaluating. Lovingly curated by the diligent African division of Sterns Music, this double-disc compilation of early rumba and soukous music by established master Tabu Ley Rochereau peaked twice in exposure: first with rave reviews upon its 2007 release, and then again after the death of its subject late last year. Obituaries from the New York Times
and the Chicago Reader
indicated that novices would do well to start here; hardened novice that I am, I missed even that boat, and have only now stumbled upon the wonderful music here. But wonderful music, however wide its coverage may be, often seems to mandate some personal expression of its wonderful qualities. The Voice of Lightness
is indeed wonderful, and so I must express.
The track that first drew me in was “Pesa Le Tout,” a deeply groovy tune that illustrates the myriad appeals of this compilation. One of these is Rochereau’s voice, a warm and fluid thing of wonder for which he's rightly been idolized. Among the most talented singers in African pop music history, Rochereau knows how to skillfully acclimate that voice to the diverse aesthetic environments provided him by his musicians. On “Pesa Le Tout,” the tone resembles one of celebration; the whole track is sung as if his voice is escaping through a wide grin. Perhaps more striking, however, is the music which urges that voice on, stunning but no less pleasurable for its own depth of feeling and complexity. Bolstered mostly by driving percussion, fizzy snaps of electric guitar, and a perpetual-motion bassline, “Pesa Le Tout” possesses a sonic depth that suggests a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. There’s an ineffable something
there, a cohesion of sound and lyric that makes it all immensely gratifying. As Dom Sinacola of Cokemachineglow once wrote, “RIYL: sound”.
The Voice of Lightness
is chock full of such gems, whether they come from Rochereau’s ‘50s material with Joseph Kabasele (a.k.a. Le Grand Kallé) as African Jazz or from his knottier ‘70s tracks with Afrisa International. Through it all, Rochereau maintains so impressively his sprightly voice, rhythms, and melodies that his clarity of aesthetic vision could be easily mistaken for homogeneity. But listen closely and the structural intricacies will reveal themselves, especially as the tracks get more jammy and as imported Cuban rumba music gradually solidifies into the specifically Congo soukous for which Rochereau stands as an emblem. Even then, much could be made of the man’s supposed apoliticality in comparison with his feisty rival, Franco Luambo. Some would leave Rochereau in the dust for “Savon Omo,” which at first sounds like yet another delicate, pretty piece of pop, but after some research turns out to be a delicate, pretty piece of advertisement for the Omo laundry soap company. Fair enough. But The Voice of Lightness
is an album of musical and not political expression, and that’s as it should be. Such beauty as put forth on this album can start to feel revolutionary in itself. For both seasoned veterans and those like myself, newbies suddenly thrust into the fray, that's something worth cherishing.