“Pepe Kalle died and it was not easy, since he was at the centre of the group’s strength,” Matolu Dode, better known as Papy Tex, told this writer in response to a question on why Empire Bakuba band collapsed almost without even trying to live on.
On Sunday, November 29, 1998, the family of Jean-Baptiste Kabaselle Yampanya announced his shock death to the world. The ‘Elephant of African Music’ had suffered heart attack a day earlier and breathed his last at Ngaliema Clinic in Kinshasa.
Pepe Kalle, under the Kadima trio of Kabaselle, Dilu Dilumona and Matolu Dode (Papy Tex) founded Empire Bakuba (named after an ancient Kuba Mweka Kingdom in Kasai Province) in 1972. For 26 years, his style of Soukous that blended raw African rhythms wowed Africa and beyond.
But weeks after Pepe Kalle’s death, Papy Tex was involved in a car crash in Brussels, Belgium. By the time he recovered, the band was no more.
From the other side, could Pepe Kalle be disappointed with how the band disintegrated upon his death? Papy Tex, who is organising a tribute concert slated for January 5, 2019, says Pepe Kalle’s soul pities them instead.
“I do not think where he is, he is unhappy with us,” Papy Tex said, adding: “He must be rather sad for us, knowing the void he left in the group is extremely difficult to fill.”
“I was bedridden for a whole year. I returned home a year after the death of Pepe Kalle walking on crutches and it was too late to remedy the situation. I tried to get the band back but it didn’t work,” he said.
So where are the band members?
Jean Matolu Dode, aka Papy Tex
Born in 1952, Papy Tex lived his music career alongside Pepe Kalle. From African Jazz through Bella Bella to Lipua Lipua, they were inseparable. Even death tried to snatch him soon after Pepe Kalle but he at least beat death to that.
He was the band’s number two, a composer and lead vocalist.
Some of Papy Tex’s biggest hits with the band include Adieu Leya, Kanda ya Nini, Sango ya Mawa, Mamie, Ibetibi and Muito Obrigado.
He lives in Belgium and believes Empire Bakuba will never die as long as he lives.
Born February 15, 1948, the eldest of the Kadima trio joined Pepe Kalle and Papy Tex after the duo had wowed Zaire while auditioning for Paul Ebengo, aka Dewayon, in 1968.
Dilu Dilumona is now into gospel with the Parish of St Francis Kintambo in Kinshasa.
The father of Atalaku (chants or animation) is a creative genius who came up with own chants that were never part of the lyrics. Some songs such as Muito Obrigado started with his chants.
He chose his words depending on the mood of the audience and used them to work up the dancers.
Djouna Mumbafu was the one who chose stage names for dancers Emoro, Jolie Bebe, Dokolos and others.
He left for Europe after the band fell apart and went solo under the name Djouna Mumbafu The Big One. He lives in the UK today.
Ntumba Ayila, aka Emoro
Emoro was the pioneer of dwarf dancers and changed the stigma associated with dwarfs in the society.
He was lively and outgoing and his dance routines on stage lifted the spirit in the band as much as it enchanted revellers.
On stage, he would appear from behind the towering Pepe Kalle, walk between his legs to the amusement of revellers.
Pepe Kalle took on Emoro after the dancer impressed at a local show and his exploits opened the door for other dwarfs such as Dokolos, and Jolie Bebe.
In 1992, while performing in Botswana, Emoro put up an exceptional performance that later turned out to have been a premonition of “dancing like it is your last.”
He suffered a heart attack during the show and died. The band honoured the father of four (he had two wives) with a song, Mamie.
Huberto Totoji Djouma, aka Dokolos
He was drafted in to replace Emoro and Empire Bakuba soon realised their choice was almost perfect fit. Emoro had left a big shoe and this agile replacement could actually somersault in that shoe during his dance routines.
He had his trademark of shaking his legs and body at fast tempo with break dance. With Jolie Bebe by his side, the two looked quite a couple. Dokolos lives with his family in Belgium.
Josephine Ndoza Kinavuidi, aka Jolie Bebe
Jolie Bebe was a traditional dancer whom Pepe Kalle spotted during a village wrestling event. With Emoro having laid the red carpet, Jolie Bebe waltzed in like the dwarf queen she was, proving a hit when paired with Dokolos. After Pepe Kalle’s death, Jolie Bebe stopped dancing, and later moved to Belgium. Though married to Didie Nzau, the husband lives with their son in Sweden.
Jean Didier, aka Dominique Mabua
The father of two was ‘semi-dwarf’ dancer. Like all the others, Pepe Kalle’s death turned the clock on his life backwards so fast that he remains struggling. In 2015, he suffered a stroke and needed government help for treatment. Mabua recovered and lives a quiet life as a shop keeper on the outskirts of Kinshasa.
Mbemba Ndombasi, aka Lofombo
Widely regarded as the best bassist DR Congo has produced, Pepe Kalle was only too proud to have Lofombo stringing the guitar for Empire Bakuba. He was nicknamed Lofombo after Baudoin Lofombo Ngeleme Mayfe, a Congolese football legend who was famous for having strong shots. Rumba fans said Ndombasi’s bass strings were just as strong. After the death of Pepe Kalle, Lofombo formed a splinter group, Delta Force Band, and has worked with many top musicians from Madilu and Simaro Lutumba to Alain Kounkou, Yondo Sister, Aurlus Mabele and down to Dany Engobo.