When Pepe Kalle was a boy in Kinshasa in the 1960s, he struck a deal with the most celebrated Congo singer of the day, Joseph Kabasele, Le Grand Kalle. In return for working around Kabasele's place, young Pepe got a place to stay and singing lessons. Up to that time, the boy had been singing hymns in Catholic school, an experience he used to say explained the melancholy character of his angelic voice. But it was the experience with Kabasele that gave him his sense of melody, and prepared him to become one of the most beloved singers Congo music has ever produced.
Kalle began his career in the '70s group Bella Bella, which also served as proving ground for Nyboma and for Kanda Bongo Man. Kalle and Nyboma continued to harmonize their rich voices from time to time for years to come. But as the rocking, youth-oriented soukous sound began to take over in Kinshasa, Kalle formed the band that he would lead for the rest of his life. Empire Bakuba took its name from a Congolese warrior tribe, and it pointedly incorporated rootsy rhythms from the interior, sounds that had long been sidelined by popular rumba. At the same time, Empire Bakuba was as hard-driving a soukous band as you'll find, with the inimitable Doris on lead guitar, and a surreal frontline that juxtaposed the elephantine Kalle with a dancing dwarf named Emauro.
In their mid-1980s book African All Stars, Chris Stapelton and Chris May wrote, "Kalle's house is full of wonder. In a white courtyard sit a row of women and children wearing white, holding candles and chanting from prayer books. Inside, the lounge is heaped with furniture, tourist items, spears, raffia mats and a large refrigerator, from which Kalle dispenses regular bottles of Primus (beer). A large plastic chicken sits on the television set, from which President Mobutu is making one of his regular broadcasts."
No one could forget an encounter with Pepe Kalle, six feet tall and weighing a good 300-pounds. Afropop first interviewed him in a Kinshasa hotel in 1987. Kalle arrived in a full-length, sky-blue, West African grand boubou with gold embroidery and a pair of leather slippers. He gobbled down a large steak as though it were a potato chip. When asked to sing a small ditty for the program, Kalle tapped out a tone on his wristwatch to get in tune, and then summoned up that enormous, resonant, velvety voice.
Empire Bakuba remained active and relatively stable during years of tremendous turbulence in Congolese music, and Congolese life. At a performance in Harare, just months before Kalle died of a sudden heart attack, the band had sprawled to the size of an orchestra. Emuaro, who passed away early in the 1990s, had been replaced by three Pygmee dancers, and the performance had the feel of a musical circus. Empire Bakuba had clearly peaked by then, but there was no denying the sense of community the band generated. When Kalle coaxed a solo from his able guitarist Doris, that big convention center crowd seemed to draw close.
Kalle's final recording, Coctail (ETS NDIAYE/Stern's 1998) acquits him well. He harmonizes gloriously over subtle guitar interplay on "Pinos Kabuya." He celebrates the Malian 13th century king in the Latin-flavored "Soundiata Keita." Rumba and roots come together in a high-tech concoction that perfectly represents the passionate jumble that is modern Africa.