“The Kasaï Nightingale” was on stage, a flamboyantly dressed stage animal as always, when he collapsed from a sudden illness. The drummer completed his Rumba riff on the cymbal before stopping the music. The dancers rushed to the leader’s aid. The images of the last moments of Papa Wemba, who died on Saturday 24 April 2016 at the Urban Musical Festival Anoumabo in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, consecrate the end of a superstar. He was one of the outstanding artists of the African continent.
Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, better known as Papa Wemba, was born in 1949 in a village in the Kasai province of what was then the Belgian Congo. Like the character he interpreted in La vie est belle (a 1987 Congolese film) he moved to the capital city Kinshasa at an early age, his heart full of dreams of music and success. And Kinshasa, the beating heart of Central Africa’s vibrating music scene, granted all his wishes. Here he launched a career that would make him a world class musician.
The chameleon of Congolese music
The chameleon-like artistic itinerary of Papa Wemba follows in the footsteps of the evolution of the story of popular Congolese music. This was triggered by the contact of Congo basin traditional music with Afro-Cuban ensembles hired during the 1940s by the Belgians to entertain the colonial officers in Léopoldville (currently Kinshasa).
Trained as a singer in a church choir, Wemba’s debut in the music business was in the late ‘60s as Jules “Presley” with Zaiko Langa Langa. They were a very successful band among urban youth, mixing classic Congolese Rumba with elements of rock and soul.
After a few years Wemba left Zaiko Langa Langa to form his own group Isifi Lokole. The group was named after the lokole, a traditional slit drum. It was in line with the Authenticité campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness launched by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed the country Zaire.
Presley becomes Papa
The young band leader stopped using his first name. He dismissed his nickname “Presley”, as evocative of the Western invaders. Instead he adopted Wemba, preceded by “Papa”, the term of respect due to Congolese men of a ripe age.
In spite of these superficial changes, Wemba’s music continued thrilling Kinshasa youth with its experimental mixture of African and Western elements, of Congolese drums and synthesizers. In 1977, the singer founded Village Molokai, a commune for musicians in the central district of Matonge. It is still a hotspot of open air concerts and nightlife in Kinshasa.
The musicians’ commune might recall Kalakuta Republic, Fela Kuti’s headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria. It was burned after an assault by the Nigerian army in the same year Molokai was founded. But unlike Fela’s social activism and political engagement, Papa Wemba’s revolution has been limited to music. This while idolising European fashion and largely employing electronic instruments. Wemba was also still backing up government campaigns, dedicating songs to Mobutu’s first wife.
Zairian nationalism was using Congolese Rumba as a flag of Africanism. It was promoting the artists and creating a musical market and a broad audience for Congolese bands all across Sub-Saharan African countries. Papa Wemba thought of pushing that forward. Since the end of the 1970s he started touring Europe and collaborating with French artists, at the same time appealing to the audience in Kinshasa with a new Western touch in music and fashion.
Wemba took fashion-worship to a new level with his new group Viva La Musica. He eventually became a central figure of La Sape (abbreviation for The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People), a controversial community of Kinshasa and Brazzaville young dandies characterised by their obsession for European clothing restyled in extravagant ways.
When Wemba, the headman of the “Rumba Rock”, decided to “play music for all the humanity, not only for the Zaireans any more”, he did so keeping an eye on his city, affectionately known as Kin la belle. But Papa Wemba settled his business in Europe and became a Belgian citizen. Still, he maintained a Kinshasa section of his band Viva La Musica.
Together with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Wemba has been one of the first African musicians to take advantage of the increasing market of so-called “world music”. He signed with British singer Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label in 1992, touring the world with his successful albums. Since then, Papa Wemba has received worldwide an endless list of awards and recognitions.
Wemba’s strong bonds with his motherland had been manifested also in ambiguous ways. In 2003, Papa Wemba was arrested in Paris for being involved in a network that has smuggled hundreds of undocumented migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire’s new name) into Europe. Wemba claimed that if he ever took money, it was “for humanitarian reasons, so a few children could escape the terrible conditions that exist in the country”.
God’s prison visit
Nonetheless, he faced three and a half months in prison, before the Congolese government paid the bail for him. The artist spent this period in intensive prayer, until – as shown in his song Numéro d'Ècrou’s video – God paid a visit to his cell, as a consequence of his spiritual conversion. Wemba’s versatility turned the conviction into a new career opportunity, leading the artist to a series of projects promoted by the Vatican.
When he was asked to comment on Joseph Kabila’s will for a third presidential term despite the Congolese constitution forbidding this, Wemba declined to answer. Politics is a matter for politicians; as a musician, his role is to give “taste for life” to the people and to sustain whomever is elected.
This view has always been very popular among Congolese musicians. Even though facing a strong and oppressive political power, many singers praise wealthy and powerful people in their songs (a practice called libanga) to make money.
Times seem to be changing. A radical movement called Les Combattans, active in the last few years among Diasporic communities, systematically boycotts Congolese musicians when performing abroad. They punish them for colluding with Kabila’s regime and being indifferent to the country’s disasters and misery.
Wemba repeatedly invited Les Combattants to “smoke the peace pipe” for the sake of a united Congo. On the contrary, the political tension in the Democratic Republic of Congo is raising, and a new generation of musicians is singing the claim for democracy and social justice, together with the activists.
Viva La Musica, anyway.