rumba on the river

abetiPapa Wemba (Shungu Wembadio, Jules), exceptional singer and band leader; born Lubefu, Congo-Kinshasa, June 14, 1949; died Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, April 24, 2016.

Papa Wemba grew up in Kinshasa, learning to sing at his mother's side, in church choir, and in little pick-up groups that played in the streets for fun. His professional career began in 1970 in the quintessential youth band Zaiko Langa Langa, first among a number of new bands that played a stripped-down, more raucous version of the Congolese rumba aimed at Kinshasa's younger generation. Wemba worked the group's front line of singers which included two other strong personalities, Michel "Evoloko" Anto and Siméon Mavuela Somo. Unlike their elders who weren't especially animated in performance, the Zaiko singers choreographed stage routines and created dances for their followers. Wemba possessed a flair for composition as well, scoring a number of hits including "Liwa ya Somo" (fearful death).

Success fostered expansion of the group to the point that Wemba and some of the other singers felt stifled. When a dispute in 1974 led to the firing of Evoloko, Wemba and Mavuela and another singer, Bozi Boziana, left to form a new group they called Lokole Isifi. Thus began the sequence of explosions that would form a number of additional bands with links to Zaiko.

A year later Wemba and Mavuela moved on again to form Yoka Lokole, until a final split in 1977 sent Wemba off on his own to assemble the pieces that would become Viva la Musica. Viva proved successful almost from the start and provided a showcase, unobstructed by would-be rivals, for Wemba's enormous talents. He wrote much of the group's music and usually sang the lead in a pleasant tenor—like Tabu Ley, whom he admired—soaring at times into a piercing falsetto. Wemba enjoyed enormous popularity during this period. He called himself "Kuru Yaka" (the great) and his Kinshasa residence Village Molokai—he'd had a fascination for the Hawaiian island ever since seeing a film about it in the late fifties—and became one of Kinshasa's better-known sapeurs, those aficionados of the fashion houses of Italy and France.

In 1979 Papa Wemba left his band to perform alongside Tabu Ley and Afrisa—a surprising alliance of young and old, said to have been engendered by Wemba's financial problems. He wandered again in 1982 to record in Paris as a solo for Franco's Visa 1980 label. This seemingly selfish behavior led a number of his musicians to leave him.

In July of 1986 Wemba began two months of shooting as the star of the film La Vie Est Belle (life is beautiful), a joint project of Belgian director Benoit Lamy and Zaire's Ngangura Mweze. A charming story, it revolves abound a young, impoverished singer who comes to the city in search of stardom. The soundtrack features much of Wemba's music, including the title song.

Scarcely more than a year later, Wemba announced that he was going solo in order to achieve a more international sound and audience. In Paris he re-recorded seven of his songs in collaboration with French producer Martin Meissonnier. The result, a decidedly un-Congolese sounding disc entitled simply Papa Wemba, alienated old fans while failing to win a substantial number of new ones.

The decline of Mobutu's Zaire sent Wemba packing again for Europe, where he spent much of the 1990s. He reconstituted Viva for concerts and recording, including two very strong—and readily identifiable as Congolese—compact discs, Foridoles (1994) and Pôle Position (1995). Still Wemba seemed determined to broaden his appeal despite the tepid reception of the Papa Wemba CD. He recorded two additional works in the same vein, Le Voyageur (1991) for the Japanese company Filament Music and Emotion (1995) for Real World, with similar results.

By the end of the nineties Wemba was operating under three different banners: Molokai, for crossover collaborations; Viva la Musica, made up of Paris session players who usually had some relationship to the old Kinshasa band; and Nouvelle Ecriture (new script), a group of younger musicians he had recruited in Kinshasa. Apart from his recording activities Wemba dueled with Koffi Olomide for preeminence in the European—particularly Parisian—concert scene.

The dawn of the new millennium saw Wemba spending more time back home in Kinshasa, re-energizing himself, soaking up new ideas, and searching for talent to plug the holes left by chronic defections among his musicians. In 2002 he performed a lavish and much-praised concert in a Kinshasa stadium. His recorded output during this period was remarkable only for its lackluster attempt to combine his disparate musical directions.

Wemba stumbled badly in February of 2003 when he was arrested in Paris and accused of attempting to smuggle some 200 people into France, claiming that they were musicians. He spent more than three months in jail while authorities investigated these and similar charges in Belgium. A French court later (2004) found him guilty and imposed a thirty-month sentence, suspending all but the amount of time he had already served. The fact that he had obtained Belgian citizenship some years earlier apparently precluded his being deported. In his public pronouncements and on a new CD, Somo Trop, Trop Somo, issued between his release from jail and subsequent trial, Wemba claimed that God had visited him in his cell, and because of that he had become a Christian.

Papa Wemba collapsed and died on stage while performing during a music festival in Abidjan. Throughout a career that spanned nearly fifty years Wemba earned a ranking in the top tier of Congolese entertainers. His flamboyant demeanor and exceptional voice set him well apart from most of his contemporaries. His stylistic wanderlust often upset fans of the Congolese rumba, but in spite of the criticism Wemba persevered in pursuit of his artistic ambitions.
© 2011 and 2016 Gary Stewart

Papa Wemba (Stern's STCD1026) 1988; Kuru Yaka (Glenn GM312001) seventies and eighties recordings reissued 1996; 8é Anniversaire (Plus de Paris EPP02) 1984 recording reissued 1996; Biloko ya Moto (Mayaula NMC46302) eighties recordings reissued 1996; La Naissance de L'Orchestre Viva la Musica (Ngoyarto NG026) seventies recordings reissued 1997; Ndako ya Ndele (Sonodisc CDS7007) seventies recordings reissued 1997; Foridoles (Sonodisc CD72424) 1994; Pôle Position (Sonodisc CDS8815) 1995; Emotion (Real World CAROL2351-2) 1995; Somo Trop, Trop Somo (Next Music CDS9147) 2004; Papa Wemba & Viva la Musica: The First Twenty Years (Stern's STCD3019-20) 2004; New Morning (Synchronies Music PW001) 2006.

C. Stapleton & C. May, African All-Stars (London, 1987); T. Cheyney "The Extraordinary Papa Wemba," The Beat (vol. 8 no. 6, 1989); B. Eyre, "Papa Needs a Brand New Bag," Option (no. 44, May/June, 1992); M. Sinnock, "Et Que Viva la Musica," The Beat (vol. 15, no. 3, 1996); M. Sinnock, "Viva Generation X," The Beat (vol. 17, no. 6, 1998); G. Stewart, Rumba on the River (London and New York, 2000); M. Sinnock, "The Harder They Fall," The Beat (vol. 20, no. 2, 2001); M. Sinnock, "Fallen Idol," The Beat (vol. 24, no. 5, 2005).