Mbilia Bel: What Tabu Ley taught me about the business of music’

Songstress Mbilia Bel

What you need to know:

At the end of 1981, Tabu Ley, the great Congolese singer, songwriter and bandleader, met the 22-year-old dancer who had dropped out of school five years earlier to pursue her dream of becoming a singer.

Like the superstar that she has been for four decades, the Congolese rumba queen, Mbilia Bel knows all about turning up fashionably late.

Two hours after the scheduled time for our interview at her Nairobi hotel, she strides into the VIP room, resplendent in her trademark African-styled outfit and lights up the room with her radiant smile and then warmly greets everyone, cracking jokes as her manager ushers her to a seat.

She settles down for the conversation by singing the chorus to 'Shauri Yako' one of the many timeless songs she recorded with Tabu Ley’s Afrisa International in the 1980s.

The soft, melodic voice sounds every bit as enchanting as it did four decades ago.

“Kenya is my second home, because fans here love the many songs I have recorded in Kiswahili like Nadina, Nakei Nairobi, and Paka Wewe and I will forever be thankful to Tabu Ley for writing these tunes,” she says.

At the end of 1981, Tabu Ley, the great Congolese singer, songwriter and bandleader, met the 22-year-old dancer who had dropped out of school five years earlier to pursue her dream of becoming a singer.

Mbilia had been spotted as a backup singer and dancer with Abeti Masikini’s group known as the Tigresses. “I was just 15, when I joined Abeti, against the wishes of my father who didn’t want me to drop out of school,” she says.

 “My grandfather was a guitarist, while my grandmother was a dancer and singer, so you can see that I have music in my blood,” she adds.

Her inspiration for music had come from watching the Togolese singer Bella Bellow performing in Congo (then Zaire) in the 1970s. “I watched this pretty woman on TV, singing beautifully and I knew I wanted to be like her, so I started performing her songs when I was a young girl.”

Mbilia left Abeti after four and a half years to join Sam Mangwana for a year-long tour around the provinces of Zaire. Some musicians in Tabu Ley’s band heard about this precocious talent and promptly arranged for her to meet their boss.

Tabu Ley had been seeking a vocalist to join his Afrisa band, to sing the female parts of the songs he wrote. He recruited her on the condition that she dropped her original name, Marie Claire Mboyo Moseka, and instead use Mbilia Bel.

“Tabu Ley wrote for me almost 300 songs, he was the best coach, he taught me everything about the music business, he liked me because I was very professional and I didn’t mess up with work.”

Her first song Mpeve Ya Longo (Holy Spirit in Kikongo) which became a hit as Mbilia was on her first tour with Tabu Ley in Angola and Kenya in 1982, struck a chord by highlighting a common social issue.

Mbilia explains: “A couple have four children together and then the man dumps his wife because he wants a younger woman.” In the song, she tells him: “now that you have rejected me, I am going to church to pray for God’s help.”

In 1983 “Eswi Yo Wapi” the opening track of Mbilia Bel’s debut album won Song of the Year in Zaire. Cadence Mudanda (1984) and Boya Ye (1985) followed in quick succession raising Mbilia’s status as one of Africa’s most successful female singers of the decade.

“It was Mobutu Sese Seko, the President at the time, who first called me “Queen Cleopatra” because he must have known that I was destined to become music royalty,” says Mbilia.

In 1986 Tabu Ley recruited the then 19-year-old Kishila Ngoyi, later known as Faya Tess, as his female star’s understudy and her debut was singing alongside Mbilia on the album Nadina in 1987.

When Afrisa went on tour in Brazil in November 1986, Mbilia, stayed in Kinshasa ostensibly because of an eye ailment. The persistent rumors about a rift with Tabu Ley, with whom she was also romantically involved, were proved true when she left the band after six and a half years to pursue a solo career at the end of 1986.

Mbilia left Kinshasa for Paris in 1988 and later that year recorded the critically acclaimed Phenomene the first album in a partnership with producer/ guitarist Rigo Starr, that also included Bameli Soy and Desole.

She returned to Paris in 1996 and recorded four albums with rumba maestro Souzy Kaseya including the Kora Award-winning album Welcome in 2001. In 2009 she collaborated with legendary guitarist Lutumba Simaro to rework his classic song Mobali Ya Bato.

After 41 years in the business Mbilia Bel’s voice still sounds as angelic as it did when she was unleashed on the world, and a daily routine of exercise has kept her fit.

“Every day I work out for an hour to keep in shape, I don’t drink alcohol, and I spend my time relaxing at home when I am not performing or recording.”

Her focus has turned to mentoring young artists who are eager to follow her footsteps. “I have started a training programme in Kinshasa for young girls on singing, dancing, costumes, and other aspects of performance.

I want to share some of the secrets of my success with the new generation,” she says. Meanwhile, she is in Kenya for the next few weeks.