Papa Wemba: A rumba ambassador with an angelic voice
One afternoon, the story goes, he went to visit a friend in Kasa-Vubu, where D.V. Moanda’s band, Belgid, was rehearsing.
A Catholic choir singer, Wemba told the band how much he loved singing and begged for a chance to sing. When he’d finished his a cappella, D.V. Moanda decided there and then to disband Belgid and create a new band.
It felt painfully personal; like a dear family member had died
Zaïko Langa Langa was born and Papa Wemba – then 20 years old and training to become a journalist – was its first recruit.
After Zaiko and a short stint at Isifi Lokole, Yoka Lokole and L’African Jazz, he created his own band, Viva la Musica, and went on to log a string of No. 1 hits like‘Show Me the Way,’ ‘FaFaFa,’ ‘Okoningana,’ ‘Maria Valencia,’ ‘Yolele,’ ‘Image,’ ‘Latin Lovers,’ ‘She Chante,’ ‘Phrase,’ ‘Awa Y’okeyi’and‘Ainsi Soit-il,’ which conquered Africa, popularised Congolese music in Europe and transformed him from stardom to superstardom.
At one point in 1987 he had a No. 1 album, single and film simultaneously. His trademark high vocal range, ability to craft international hits and his effortless fusion of traditional rhythm with funk, poetry and rock won him fame and made him an enduring figure in African music.
‘Rail On’ is perhaps my personal favourite of his classics. It opens with a soft ballad of guitar and drums that sounds more like a prayer.
After 11 seconds of slow-building tension, he cries in a tender, angelic tenor voice the most poetic Swahili words, which capture exactly the sorrow of his passing: Machozi yangu yote namalizika / Mienitalalananani / Weunaenda,‘I have run out of tears crying now that you have gone.’ I have listened to it a lot lately.
Elsewhere in his catalogue were songs that addressed political matters – and his politics, as subtle as they were, went beyond his music.
Back in 1970, when Mobutu banned the wearing of European clothes, Papa Wemba and his friends responded defiantly by dressing up in elegant, colourful and designer clothes to challenge the status quo.
Sapologie was born; and S.A.P.E, a French acronym for ‘the society of atmosphere-setters and elegant people’ became a cult-like social movement for which he will long be remembered.
Like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, in the 1970s Wemba declared a section of Kinshasa in the borough of Matonge an independent state. He named it Village Molokai, declared himself the Village Chief and appointed both a supreme court and a government.
Papa Wemba courted controversy and drew some opposition. In 2003, he spent more than three months in a jail in Belgium where the authorities accused him of smuggling people into Europe.
And for the past 10 years he was prevented from performing in Europe or North America because of his close ties with Joseph Kabila – a boycott that applies to all artists supporting the dictatorial Kabila regime in Kinshasa.
When news of his tragically premature death came, my 18-year-old sister Laura broke down in her room. It felt painfully personal; like a dear family member had died.
And this is what made Papa Wemba special. We grew up with him. I danced to him before I knew his name was Papa Wemba; before I knew his style of music was called rumba; before I knew he was a global icon, before I knew about S.A.P.E.–and I did so with the same joie de vivre my dad had danced to him as an adolescent in the bars and nightclubs of Kinshasa 30 years earlier.
My greatest regret is that we did not honour him when he was still with us. ●
This article was first published in the June, 2016 edition of The Africa Report magazine