Congolese Music Star, Papa Wemba, Dies on Stage


Papa Wemba, one of Africa’s greatest music stars, has died after collapsing on stage during a festival in Ivory Coast, event organisers said yesterday.

Papa Wemba, who was known as the “King of Congolese Rumba” for helping to bring the highly popular sound to an international audience, was 66.

According to AFP, the flamboyant singer died shortly after performing three songs at the Urban Musical Festival Anoumabo (FEMUA) in Abidjan, the organisers said.

The FEMUA management expressed its “deep sorrow” at the death of a man who has been at the forefront of African music for more than four decades.

Papa Wemba was born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in June 1949 in what was then Belgian Congo.

He began his singing career in religious choirs in which he developed his trademark high range voice, making his debut in the capital Kinshasa at the end of the 1960s. He inherited his love of song from his mother, who was a professional “wailing woman” at funerals.

He was convicted in 2004 of smuggling illegal immigrants into France by disguising them as members of his band but walked free as he had already served four months behind bars.

He was supported by a host of fans during his Paris trial in which he was sentenced to a 30-month term, with 26 months suspended, and a fine of 10,000 euros ($11,000).

Papa Wemba, who was also known for his flamboyant style of dress, was a founding member of the “Society of Dandies and Trendy People” in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Like many of his generation, he was strongly influenced by American and British pop culture and initially took the stage name Jules Presley.

In 1969, he helped found Zaiko Langa Langa, a Zaire-based pop group that was to achieve cult status in the 1970s with its revival of Latin American rumba.

The group revitalised the style that had been popular in the 1940s, using a combination of Afro-Cuban rhythm and Congolese song while introducing rock rhythms and electronic sounds.

Papa Wemba settled in France in 1986 as his fame began to reach as far afield as Japan, dazzled by the African dandy who was dressed by the world’s leading designers.

He went on to reach a much wider public, thanks to a world music album produced by France’s Martin Meissonnier in 1988, which blended African and western sounds.

Papa Wemba’s career began to falter in 1999 after parting ways with the Real World record label that was founded by British rock star, the former Genesis singer Peter Gabriel.