Le Grande Kalle

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The father of modern Zairean music, introduced the now prominent Latin flavor within the country's song.
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b. Joseph Kabasele Tshamala, 1930, Matadi, Zaire, d. 11 February 1983, Paris, France. The father of modern Zairean music, Kalle’s earliest musical experiences were as a member of the church choir in his home town of Matadi. Moving to Kinshasa in 1950, he worked with Orchestre De Tendence Congolaise, a band that specialized in acoustic polka and mazurka rhythms, derived from records brought to the country by colonial settlers. In 1953, keen to develop a genuinely Congolese style, he formed African Jazz, based on the Afro-Cuban tradition and in particular the rumba, samba and cha cha, all played in a distinctively Congolese fashion. Over the years, the group included many of the future stars of Zairean music, including Dr. Nico and Tabu Ley, and provided a training ground for the next generation of Zairean musicians. By 1960, Kalle and African Jazz were the top band in the Congo, releasing literally hundreds of 78s each year (mainly on the local Decca Records label) and filling dancehalls throughout the country. In 1961, the group embarked on an extensive West African tour, introducing the Congolese Afro-Cuban style to audiences in Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Guinea and making a huge impact on local musicians. Guinea’s Bembaya Jazz, for instance, credit Kalle’s 1961 tour with the birth of West Africa’s Latin American-influenced sub-style, still a popular alternative to highlife, juju and afrobeat. In 1960, Kalle created his own label, Surboum African Jazz, sending musicians like Franco and OK Jazz to Belgium to record. The same year he composed his still popular hymn to the new independent Congo, ‘Independence Cha Cha’ (which featured a magnificent guitar solo from Dr Nico, still mimicked by young Zairean guitarists today). Also in 1960, he recorded ‘Okuka Lokole’, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, who visited Zaire on a tour sponsored by the US State Department. Kalle relished composing tribute songs and at the 1967 Organization of African Unity in Kinshasa he presented each of the 30 heads of state with a song praising their own country in the appropriate local melody and rhythm. He also performed satires and lampoons of local politicians, and in 1969, feeling himself to be under surveillance and fearing for his safety - having released a single critical of Kinshasa’s Chief of Police - he left the country to settle in Paris, where he formed the Afro-Latin fusion band African Team with Manu Dibango, Jean-Serge Essous and Don Gonzalo. Paris remained his base until his death, though he began to visit Zaire again in the late 70s. Kalle was important not just for the wealth of songs he recorded, but also for the development of the Latin tendency in Zairean music, creating a style whose sweetness and melodic strength is still in evidence in Zaire today.