In the fifties, the famous Congolese rumba dominated the continent. Half a century later, it has lost nothing of its youth even if, in the meantime, it has undergone numerous, radical face-lifts. Among the most inspired surgeons is Papa Wemba. The man has everything you love in the new Congolese, ex-Zairians, ex-Congolese (you will understand as you read on): vivacity, humour, intelligence, talent. And Kinshasa is a temple of intelligence where the French language is the most image laden in the French-speaking world.
It was in the Southern Congo (Zaire from 1971 to 1997 and then Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the Kasai River region, that Papa Wemba was born in 1949. His real name was Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, but the child was nicknamed Papa because he was his mother’s eldest son.
While Papa was still a baby, the family moved to Leopoldville, the capital of the country, then a Belgian colony. His father, an ex-soldier who fought in the Belgian Army during the Second World War, became a hunter and often went off into the forest. His mother was a professional mourner, an essential, traditional part of all funereal vigils and wakes. By regularly taking her son with her, she introduced him to music and song which very quickly became a passion for the child. However, his father was totally opposed to his son becoming a musician and dreamt of him becoming a journalist or lawyer.
Papa’s father passed away in 1966. The young man wasted no time in finally indulging in his musical ambitions. He became cantor of his parish in the church of St. Joseph and developed a very high voice which was to be one of the characteristics of his style. In the late 60s he played and sung with various groups in the capital, which had become Kinshasa following independence in 1960. Like all the youth of the time, Papa Wemba was profoundly inspired by British/American music and changed his name to Jules Presley.
In 1969 he was in at the birth of one of the biggest Zairian groups of the 70s, Zaiko Langa Langa. The group very quickly became the figurehead of a generation of young Zairians who found the traditional rumba a little too slow and a little old-fashioned. Since the 50s, the whole of Africa had been dancing this Afro-Cuban rumba, popularised by Joseph Kabasele, the star of the day, then by Franco in the 60s. But rhythms speeded up with the arrival of rock. Zaiko Langa Langa then sought to energise the apathetic rumba then in vogue. They replaced their wind instruments with a drum kit and electrified their music to inject much-needed vitality. Success was instant. Papa Wemba very quickly became a star and dominated the group.
In 1975, encouraged by an already entrenched fame, Papa Wemba left Zaiko and formed his own, more folk style group, Isifi Lokole. Isifi is an abbreviation for the Institut de Savoir Idealogique pour la Formation des Idoles (Institute of Ideological Knowledge for the Training of Idols) and Lokole is the name of percussion instruments from the Kasai region. In the following year the group was replaced by another one, Yoka Lokole, whose life-span was equally short.
Viva La Musica
In 1977 Papa Wemba finally formed Viva La Musica, a group of about fifteen musicians, which after numerous changes still exists today, 20 years later. At the time the young man was a star throughout the whole of Zaire and beyond the rivers which encircle the country. His impact far exceeded the world of music. In the suburbs of Kinshasa, covering a large residential area, the singer recreated a village “The Village of Molokai” and established himself as the head man. Within the village, he imposed a fashion style centered around the beret. You had to speak in a certain way, walk in a certain way… It was a town within a town with its own codes and its own rules.
Around 1979 he sang for a few months with the Afrisa International Orchestra of Tabu Ley, another Zairian star with whom Papa Wemba had already worked in the late 60s. Then in 1980, he toured Africa with his hit “Analengo” which sold 60,000 copies.
In the early 80s, Papa Wemba travelled more frequently to France which has a large Zairian community. Despite the many recording studios in Kinshasa, the facilities and equipment quality were infinitely superior in Europe. That was why his producer sent him to France in 1982. After several months away from home, rumours began to circulate about a possible assassination. A true prophet in his own country, almost a myth, Papa Wemba was welcomed back like a head of state when he finally returned.
European producers then began to take an interest in Papa Wemba, a highly promising commodity in countries where African music was gradually beginning to take hold. Tied to an exclusive contract with the Visa 80 label of Luambo Makiadi, alias Franco, it was a while before the Zairian began to work with Europeans.
But in Europe, Papa Wemba was not just a singer. He was also the prince, the “Pope” of SAPE, the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Posers and Elegant People). Started in the Congo in the late 70s, the movement flourished in Zaire and especially with Zairian-Congolese exiles abroad, and in particular in France. SAPE was initially a dress thing based on exaggerated, flamboyant elegance. A slave to fashion, Papa Wemba was a fashion leader and the major European and Japanese designers were no strangers to him. Young men rushed to become clothes conscious dandies and carefully followed the special codes of SAPE, from their shoes to their hair style. A form of anti-poverty and anti-depression rebellion, SAPE was also a way of fighting against the dictatorship of the “abacost”, a local version of the three-piece suit and virtually an official uniform of the Mobutu regime.
In 1983, Papa Wemba recorded an album with the French musician Hector Zazou. The two artistes combined their cultures and the album “Malimba” is an early example of fusion between the African rumba and synthesised sounds. This style was in full bloom at that time and many African artistes were launching themselves into this culturally rich and commercially prolific mixture which was becoming increasingly known as world music.
While journeys between Zaire and France were becoming more and more regular, Papa Wemba did not neglect Africa undertaking lengthy tours, like the one in April 1983 in the West of the country as far as Rwanda and Burundi. At that stage in his career, Papa Wemba had already recorded about sixty singles and several albums. A tireless worker, he was one of the pillars of African music in terms of quality and fame. Tackling Europe and the Western world was thus an essential turning point in his career.
Soukouss New Wave
In late 1983, he returned to Europe and stayed eight months. His group, Viva La Musica, stayed in Zaire under the leadership of his wife Amazone. In a country in crisis, the musicians continued to give concerts but the material was as sparse as the musicians’ wages. On his return in July 1984, Papa Wemba was again impatiently awaited by the population and his entourage. He immediately resumed tours and concerts with the group and several times a week set the Kinshasa clubs alight with his “soukouss new wave”. The euphoria that Papa Wemba and his music created was a real antidote to the crisis for a troubled youth. However, the singer was still to refuse to play a political role through his songs, even if he did so unwittingly.
In 1984, Papa Wemba took up acting in the Franco-Zairian film “La Vie est Belle”. But that year’s feature was the swarm of Japanese tourists coming to Kinshasa and immediately going overboard for the rumba, the soukouss and these artistes who wear Yamamoto, the famous Japanese designer. Papa Wemba was embarking on a brilliant Japanese career.
With his eye fixed on Europe, Papa Wemba finally moved there in 1986. Africa was fashionable, SAPE members were invading the capital and the Zairian singer very quickly became a world music star.
Following two albums between 1986 and 1988, “Siku Ya Mungu” and “L’Esclave”, Papa Wemba brought out an album in 1988 produced entirely in France by Martin Meissonier (King Sunny Ade, Ray Lema). A selection of made in Kinshasa rumba-rock hits, subtly blended with digital sounds, the record won over a public of non-believers. It reveals a heavily revamped Viva La Musica after ten years in existence. With his high, slightly rasping, voice at its peak, Papa Wemba undertook an international tour from Japan to the United States via Europe based on numerous festivals. On 9th December at La Cigale in Paris he closed part of his tour by arranging a SAPE competition during the first part of his concert.
In early 1989, he toured all over the United States with the African review “Africa Oye”. Then between spring and summer, he attended numerous festivals including the Bourges Spring Festival in April. He spent three days, 10th to 12th February 1990, in the Theatre de la Ville in Paris and ended 1990 in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo, where a gala evening was organised in his honour.
Returning to the Land of the Rising Sun in the first few months of 1991, this time to record an album produced by a Japanese, Papa Wemba came back from Asia with two records under his belt “Le Voyageur” containing new versions of 10- to 15-year-old tracks, and a live album. Promoting the new “Le Voyageur” album took him round the world again, setting out from Africa in June. The tour concluded the following year in Europe.
In 1993 he spent a lot of time with Peter Gabriel, an English musician and founder of the famous world music label Realworld. “Le Voyageur” had already been issued on this label but the two men planned working on a new album together. In the meantime, Peter Gabriel offered Papa Wemba the support slot during an American and European tour. Although the African had already played in these countries many times, the Englishman gave him the opportunity to play before several thousand spectators in concert halls and even stadia. In France, the two artists appeared in the huge Parisian concert hall at Bercy (16,000 seats) in November.
After returning to the rumba and soukouss in the “For Idoles” album, aimed at his African fans, Papa Wemba spent some time in Peter Gabriel’s studios in Bath, England, recording the “Emotion” album. The album came out in France in 1995 and its commercial aims were very clearly Western. Papa Wemba was backed for the occasion by his compatriot singer and musician Lokua Kanza to show off his special tone of voice, the French specialist in African music and keyboard wizard Jean-Philippe Rykiel and the English producer Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order). Success in Europe was enormous, thanks in particular to the remake of the “Fa Fa Fa Fa” (sad song) hit of Papa Wemba’s all time hero, Otis Redding.
He returned to the stage of La Cigale, the starting point of a French tour, on 20th May. In September, along with the Senegalese artiste Youssou N’dour, he received the first African Music Prize in the best artiste category. Then, at the end of the year, Papa Wemba got together again with his legendary group Viva La Musica for a new album “Pole Position” which came out in early 1996. During his recent international tours Papa Wemba was backed by another more mixed group with much wider musical experience. But he then decided to return to his African fans. Towards the end of the year he brought out the “Wake Up” album with another soukouss star Koffi Olomide. A huge musical and commercial coup, the album’s success spread to Europe.
He returned to Dakar and Youssou N’dour at the start of January 1997 for a duet recorded in the studios of the Senegalese, Xipii. The IRCC (International Red Cross Committee) asked the two men to record a song especially for the organisation.
In August, a new purely Zairian album for Papa Wemba and Viva La Musica: “Nouvelle Ecriture” (New Writing) produced by Maika Munan. The album also bore his name as the musician contributed some rap (“Sai Sai”), salsa (“Jeancy”) and funk (“Ba Diamants”) to the soukouss.
On 9th October in La Cigale (Paris) he took the stage again on behalf of the Red Cross. The profits from the show were to finance projects on the African Continent and in particular the fight against anti-personnel mines. This concert also marked the launch of the “So Why” campaign designed to encourage inter-ethnic tolerance. This campaign, among other things, led to the release of a record recorded by Papa Wemba and Youssou N’dour a few months later.
Papa Wemba returned to the studio in the spring of 98 to begin work on a highly autobiographical new album, “Molokaï” (named after the singer’s group). “Molokaï”, the African star’s third album on the Realworld label, was released in June of this year. Having understood that music fans in the West had very different tastes from their African counterparts, Papa Wemba and his producer, John Leckie, began experimenting with a different musical approach on this new album. “Molokaï” features a selection of old classics – many of them more than 20 years old now! – but Papa Wemba’s unique voice renders these tracks utterly timeless. (Wemba fans will be interested to know that the African singer used special singing techniques on “Molokaï” which were handed down to him by his mother).
In 1999 movie-goers were able to hear two of Papa Wemba’s songs (“Maria Valencia” and “Le Voyageur”) on the soundtrack of “Paradiso e inferno”, a film by the famous Italian director Benardo Bertolucci. Later that year Papa Wemba also appeared on an album put out by Passi’s group Bisso Na Bisso.
After his contract with the Realworld label came to an end Papa Wemba was free to make his own artistic choices. 1999 saw the release of a new album entitled “M’zée fulangenge” (The Sage Who Breathes Happiness) on the Musisoft label. The album featured a skilful mix of soukouss (aimed at the dancefloor) zouk (“Martina B.) and salsa (legendary salsa star Tito Puente was invited to play on “M’zée fulangenge”). In fact, Wemba’s new album aimed to appeal to both African and Western music fans.
A thirty years’ career
The following year, Papa Wemba took off on a tour that took him around the globe. Then he returned to the studio to record a new album, “Bakala Dia Kuba”, which was released later that year in December 2001. Celebrating the singer’s thirty-year-long career, the album featured an extensive mix of musical genres: soukouss, Latino sounds, Congolese Rumba, and Soul music. The artist’s close friends and fellow countrymen, Lokua Kanza and Ray Lema appeared on it as special guests. It hit record stores while the artist was getting ready for a big show at Bercy—the biggest music venue in Paris.
The creator of a fashion and a music, Papa Wemba has been instrumental in introducing Afro-pop to the Western charts. But at home in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a whole generation of youth has been following the trials and tribulations of the Kasai SAPE member step by step for nearly thirty years.
Papa Wemba spent three and a half months in prison, an experience which, on his release, he declared had had a profound psychological effect on him. The singer claimed to have undergone a spiritual conversion in jail and even recounted this episode on his new album, “Somo trop” (released in October 2003). On the song “Numéro d’écrou”, Papa Wemba recalled the day “God paid a visit to his cell.
After this road to Damascus experience, a born-again Papa Wemba returned to the stage, taking Parisian venue Le Zénith by storm on 25 October 2003 in the company of the “Tendance” orchestra.
In June 2004, Papa Wemba flew back to Kinshasa, setting foot in the Congolese capital for the first time in eighteen months. The singer took the opportunity to publicly thank his Congolese fans for the support they had shown him during his time in prison in France. Papa Wemba ended up playing five concerts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Vieux Bokul” (Old Bokul) – as many of Papa’s compatriots had taken to calling the singer – went on to feature on the “Dis l’heure 2 afro zouk” compilation, released in June 2005. On this occasion, he recorded a duet with the French-Congolese R&B singer Singuila. In July 2005, Papa Wemba appeared at the pan-African music festival Fespam in Brazzaville before flying off to Paris to perform his “Papa Wemba intime” show at Le Trianon. This low-key, intimate style of show, which brought Papa into close contact with his audience, worked so well that he went on to perform a totally acoustic show at another famous Parisian venue, Le New Morning, on 15 February 2006. The show was captured live on the album “New Morning.”
Meanwhile, the Congolese rumba star was also kept busy in the studio, putting the finishing touches to a new album, “Nkunzi Nlele”, released in December 2006. The album made relatively little impact on the music scene, but this did not stop Papa returning to the studio again soon afterwards. Accompanied by Viva la Musica (whose line-up had significantly changed in the meantime) Papa recorded a series of new songs in Kinshasa then flew off to Paris for the final mix of his new album. The rumba king went on to perform concert dates across Angola, Tanzania and Tunisia. Meanwhile, Papa Wemba was appointed as an official ambassador of the anti-landmine campaign, a cause he had started defending ten years earlier.
2008: “Kaka Yo”
In the spring of 2008, Papa Wemba released a new album entitled “Kaka Yo” with his group Viva la musica. On this new album, the King of Rumba reached out a helping hand to the new generation, inviting fifteen young up-and-coming artists into the studio with him. Their collective effort injected a breath of new life and energy into Viva la Musica.
The accent was also on the young generation for the album “Notre père”, commercialised in 2010, featuring input from Congolese singer Nathalie Makoma and Ivoirian rapper Nash, along with the French singer Ophélie Winter. Papa Wemba also sought inspiration from vintage musicians like Leon Bukasa and Franco to put together the collection, mainly destined for the local market.
At the same time, he decided to record another album aimed at a more international public, but the release of this second part entitled “Notre Père World” or “Wembadio”, and including participation from the Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino and guitarist Simon Diaz, was postponed time and again.
Part of the problem was a busy agenda, which in 2011 saw the singer perform at Morocco’s Mawazine Festival in May, quietly produce a mini-album called “Trait d’union”, and give a series of concerts in his homeland accompanied by Nathalie Makoma and Nash, playing his favourite acoustic style.
When the pope visited Benin in November, Papa Wemba was invited to play in Cotonou and finished the year with concerts in Togo and Equatorial Guinea, then in 2012 went on to Gabon followed by Côte d’Ivoire. Not long after celebrating 35 years with his group Viva la Musica in Kinshasa, he reacted to the troubles in the east of his country with the song “Mode d’emploi”, saying “no to the Balkanisation of the Congo”. When the African Union celebrated its fiftieth anniversary a few months later, Papa Wemba took part in the celebrations with a concert at Addis Ababa. 2013 ended with a live performance at the Niamey national stadium in Niger.
2014: “Maître d’école”
In June 2014, his double album “Maître d’école” came out. The singer, now in his sixties, explained that the aim was to champion rumba, including duets with his compatriot Barbara Kanam, the Malian Nana Kouyaté, and JB Mpiana, established icon of the Congolese scene.