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Sometimes written as Pepe Kalle (November 30, 1951 – November 28, 1998) was a soukous singer, musician and bandleader from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pépé Kallé was born Kabasele Yampanya in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville) in the Belgian Congo, but later assumed his pseudonym in hommage to his mentor, Le Grand Kallé.
With a multi-octave vocal range and a dynamic stage presence, the 190 cm (6 ft 3 in) and 136 kg (300 lb) vocalist recorded more than three hundred songs and twenty albums during his two decade-long career. Known affectionately as “the elephant of African music” and “La Bombe Atomique,” Kallé entertained audiences with his robust performances.
His musical career started with l’African Jazz, the band of Le Grand Kallé. He later performed in Bella Bella and became the lead singer of Lipua Lipua, where he sang alongside Nyboma Mwandido. In 1972, Kallé along with Dilu Dilumona and Papy Tex, left Lipua Lipua to form their own band named Empire Bakuba. 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. The band was an instant hit, and together with Zaiko Langa Langa they became Kinshasa’s most popular youth band. With hits such as Pépé Kallé’s Dadou and Papy Tex’s Sango ya mawa, the band was a constant fixture on the charts. They also created a new dance, the kwassa kwassa.
On their tenth anniversary in 1982, the band was voted Zaire’s top group. Throughout the early 1980s, Empire Bakuba continued to tour extensively while releasing no less than four albums a year. By the mid eighties, they had a large following throughout Francophone Central and West Africa. His 1986 collaboration with Nyboma labelled Zouke zouke was one of the years top selling albums. But it was his second collaboration with Nyboma, Moyibi (1988), which launched his popularity throughout Africa.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kallé fused elements of the fast paced version of soukous produced in Paris studios. His 1990 album, Roger Milla – a tribute to the exploits of the great Camerounian footballer, is a classic example of this arrangement.
In 1992 the band faced its first major calamity when Emoro, the band’s dancing dwarf, died while on tour in Botswana. Despite this setback, Pépé Kallé’s popularity continued to soar in the nineties as he released albums like Gigantafrique, Larger than life and Cocktail. He also collaborated with other legends like Lutumba Simaro and Nyoka Longo.
Pépé Kallé died of a heart attack on November 28, 1998.