Born Gilbert Youlou in the French Congo on the 3rd of March, 1947, Youlou sang with various groups in and around Brazzaville, but was still a comparative newcomer when ‘Le Grand Maitre’ Franco heard him there at a club in 1966. Franco was in exile from his native country, the Belgian Congo, soon to be renamed Zaire, but once he could safely cross the Congo River back into Kinshasa, he invited Youlou and the bass player, Bitchou, to go with him and join his great band, OK Jazz. Of course they went.
Youlou had a high, reedy voice that paired well with Franco’s lower, rougher voice, and despite being one of the youngest members of the band, from the late ’60s into the early ’70s Youlou proved to be one of the most prominent. But when he and other members of OK Jazz played nzong-nzing (moonlight gigs) once too often, Franco finally lost his patience and in 1972, fired the lot.
Together with Bitchou and guitarist Mose Se Sengo ‘Fan Fan’, Youlou joined others who’d fallen out with Franco and formed Lovy du Zaire, soon to be followed by Somo Somo. Only one year later however, Franco asked Youlou Mabiala (as he was now officially named) to come back to OK Jazz. Youlou did not refuse.
He returned to an even stronger TPOK Jazz and sang alongside such stars as Sam Mangwana, Josky Kiambukuta and Ntesa Dalienst. He himself became a star, and his compositions hits around Africa. But life in Zaire was becoming difficult, particularly for immigrants from Congo-Brazzaville, so in 1977 he left Kinshasa and went home. There he co-founded Les Trois Frères, which grew, changed its name to Kamikaze Loningisa, and by the ’80s surpassed even Les Bantous de la Capitale as Brazzaville’s premier band.
Youlou and Franco remained close. Franco produced a Kamikaze Loningisa album in 1982 and a short while later Youlou married Franco’s daughter, Hélène, and the old man began referring to his son-in-law as Prince Youlou. When Franco died in 1989, Youlou disbanded Kamikaze Loningisa and led TPOK Jazz on one of its last albums. He continued working, mainly in Paris, until 2004, when a cardiovascular stroke restricted his ability to perform.