Joseph Athanase Kabasele Tshamala was born in Matadi, a port town in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), on 16 December 1930, the year of the first Congolese sailors’ strike. Shortly after his birth, his parents moved to Kinshasa where young Joseph went to primary and secondary school. Music played a vital role in Kabasele’s life from an early age and he began singing in the local church choir as a child. By the age of 19, he was singing on a full-time basis, performing at public meetings and funeral wakes. Kabasele made his professional music debut with Georges Doula’s OTC (Orchestre de Tendance Congolaise) and recorded his first hits including Chérie Loboga and Para Fifi.
In 1953, Kabasele formed African Jazz, the band with whom he would go on to revolutionise Congolese music. Moving away from rumba piquée, mazurka and other dance styles that were fashionable at the time, Kabasele and his band whipped up an infectious mix of rumba and samba sounds. Grand Kalle, as Kabasele became known to his adoring fans, was the first musician to integrate tumbas, trumpets and electronic instruments in his group. Playing together up until 1963, Grand Kalle and African Jazz created a number of seminal sounds and established themselves as one of the most popular African bands of the day.
Grand Kalle went on to show that he had an impressive range of talents up his sleeve, proving himself not only as a bandleader and a singer but also as a composer and impresario. In 1960, Grand Kalle set up his own record label, Surboum African Jazz, providing a home and a much-needed springboard for musicians involved in the new wave of Congolese music. Kabasele sent the best of his bands abroad to record in top studios in Brussels. Grand Kalle also travelled to Brussels himself, going down in history as the first African music star to play in Belgium. In 1960, Kabasele and African Jazz accompanied political delegates to perform at the historic Round Table conference in Brussels where the future of the former Belgian Congo was to be decided.
From 1960 onwards, Kabasele began to change his sound and his tone, becoming a politically motivated artist and an ardent supporter of President Patrice Lumumba. On the occasion of the Round Table conference in Brussels, Kabasele penned his Independance Cha Cha, one of the biggest African hits of all time which was subsequently adapted as a celebratory anthem by African countries achieving independence. This was followed by a string of other hits including Bilombe ba gagné (The Best Men Won), Lumumba and Congo se ya biso. Grand Kalle made another political statement at the Organisation of African Unity summit, held in Kinshasa in 1967, giving each government leader who attended a 45rpm featuring a tribute song to their countries.
Kabasele’s constant campaigning for peace and African unity was not understood by all, however, especially after Lumumba’s death in 1961. In 1963, after a phenomenally successful tour of West Africa, Grand Kalle’s musicians abandoned him, going off to form their own band, African Fiesta. Feeling himself to be under close surveillance from all sides, Kabasele left his homeland and sought exile in Paris. Here, he went on to form a new band, African Team, which included Jean Serge Essous and a number of future African stars such as Manu Dibango in its line-up.
The African Team experience proved to be short-lived, however, and Grand Kalle ended up on his own with no band, no money and no fixed abode. He spent some time travelling through Europe and lived in various African capitals before finally returning to Zaire. But he was disillusioned with what he found there and soon moved back to France. The founding father of rumba eventually returned to Kinshasa where he died destitute at the age of 52.