Wemba Goes with a Bang

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha,

Two days after the world lost virtuoso musician Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as Prince, the African continent was thrown into gloom as one of its finest musician, Papa Wemba left the earthly plane.

Papa Wemba like the late Mother of African Music, Miriam Makeba died on stage while performing with his band, Viva La Musica in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Like Makeba, Wemba was said to have expressed a wish to die performing.

Makeba died on November 9, 2008 in Castel Volturno, Italy, having just performed at a concert.
Last Sunday, on the last day of the FEMUA Music Festival, his morbid desire was realised to the consternation of the world.

The concert pooled thousands of music lovers to Abidjan, to watch eclectic performances by renowned artistes. This year featured artistes like Too Fan, Daddy Lumba and others
It took a while before the dancers realised that the artiste slumped on the ground was not performing any theatric; that he was indeed comatose. Desperately, they began to fan him before the medical team arrived, a bit too late to save the Rumba King.

Tributes poured in from African leaders, music stars and fans, including Angelique Kidjo (who collaborated with him on one of his hits), Femi Kuti, Samuel Eto’o, Diamond Platnumz (who revealed they were working on a song together on his Instagram page) among others, who donned the artiste with different accolades. Some regarded him as the ‘Voice of Africa’, others called him ‘The King of Rumba Rock’.
A simple man, Wemba was not one who fancied titles. It was ironic, therefore, that he would be decorated with many titles in death. While alive, he wished to be remembered only as ‘a singer’.
On the news of his death, his wife, Marie Lozolo flew to Abidjan the following day to see the remains of her beloved husband. An all-night concert was held in honour of the great artiste and on Thursday morning, a large crowd welcomed his body at Kinshasa’s airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He will be buried on Tuesday after a lying-in-state ceremony on Monday.
Aged 66 (although some reports say he was 70), Papa Wemba was recognised as one of the foremost musicians whose influences in music paved the way for young musicians. He is the pioneer of modern day Soukous, a genre peculiar to Congo which has beamed spotlights on artistes like Koffi Olomide.
In many aspects, Papa Wemba shared similarities with Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. They were both prolific, rebellious and culture influencers.

Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, Wemba entered the music world in 1969, at a time his country was still struggling to get her footing as a free nation. Grief from wars and assassinations still cast a plaintive mood on the country after 10 years of independence. But the musicians of that era found peace in the music they made. They gave the country a soothing balm on their scars.

With artistes like Franco, Dr. Nico, making waves in the music scene, Kinshasa became the music capital of the continent. They came up with the Rumba sound – a dynamic blend of Latin, Cuban and traditional African music whose popularity traversed the continent.

At the time, Papa Wemba was still groping with his own identity. His father wanted him to be a lawyer or a journalist. But his mother’s tenor voice as a professional mourner at funerals intrigued young Wemba. He would later decide to pursue music instead. His conviction to conquer the music world came from his days of singing in religious choirs.

But there was a huge difference between the type of music he sang in churches and the type the society wanted. Making music was very competitive in his generation. The heavyweight musicians were revered in Congo, people loved their sound and music, everybody wanted to be like the Francos and Tabu Leys of their time.

However, Wemba had a plan. It was simple. If he had to make an impression with his music, he had to think outside the box. Together with other aspiring musicians, they formed the band Zaiko Langa Langa. The band revolutionised the Rumba sound by experimenting with different combos of Western rock and the traditional sound.
Their unique sound signaled the birth of Soukous. Within months, they were the talk of the town. The band’s success was greatly attributed to Wemba who wrote most of its popular hits. They toured Zaire and other parts of Africa.

At the height of their fame, the prevalent pecuniary issues in music bands reared its ugly head and Wemba left with some group members. This was in December 1974, a month after boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought in Kinshasa’s ‘Rumble in The Jungle’. He only spent four years with the band.
Together with Bozi Boziana, Evoloko and Mavuela Somo, they formed the Isifi Lokole and later Yoka Lokole, but both bands only survived for a year.

Perhaps, if he wasn’t incarcerated in prison for allegedly being involved intimately with the General’s daughter, he would have resolved the artistic ego tussle and money issues between members and remained in the band. But when the band performed without him, Wemba felt they threw a dagger at his heart and revengefully started his own band Viva la Musica in 1977.

Viva la Musica struck gold instantly with hits like ‘Mabele Mukonzi’, ‘Bokulaka’. With this new band, Wemba was inventive. First, they were young unknown artistes which Koffi Olomide was one of them. Then he introduced the ‘Lokole’ into the mix, a traditional instrument made out of a hollowed out tree trunk and hit with sticks. His piquant tenor also became more distinctive.

By this time, Wemba was revered in his home town. His family home became a gathering for youths who admired his style and loved his music. This gathering set in motion the formation of SAPE – Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d’Elegance or Society of Ambiance-ists and People of Elegance. Members of these fashion cults were regarded as Sapeurs. They were well known for their elegant style of dress. Their style of dressing was widely reported to be influenced by the Japanese designer Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.

Wemba wanted his fashion cult to promote high standards in fashion and attitude.
“The Sapeur cult promoted high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation of youth across Zaire. When I say well groomed, well shaved, well perfumed, it’s a characteristic that I am insisting on among the young. I don’t care about their education, since education always comes first of all from the family.”

Unfortunately, the Sapeurs couldn’t live up to the high demands of their leader. They eventually gave in to begging to the dismay of Wemba.
While Wemba recorded much success in Africa, he wasn’t satisfied. So he took some of his members to Paris and other European countries looking for a wider audience. He would later have two factions of his band.

The international acclaim he was looking for came in 1995 when he went on tour with Peter Gabriel. His successful album of all time ‘Emotional’ released under Peter Gabriel’s label did not only record high sales for him but also drew international interest to him. His style of blending Cuban, Western and African sounds earned him an enviable reputation that set him apart from his counterparts.

On more than one occasion, Wemba’s integrity was questioned. His complicity in smuggling immigrants into Europe through his band fetched him an arrest in Paris in 2003. He was later bailed but was convicted again in 2006. Wemba reportedly did not consider his actions a crime; rather he considered it as help to his people who were trying to escape the hunger and distress that engulfed his country. He would later sing about his ordeal in prison in his single ‘Numero d’ecrou’ from his 2003 ‘Somo Trop’ album.

Apart from music, he also dabbled into acting. He played the lead male character in the successful Zairean film ‘La Vie est Belle’ by Belgian director Benoît Lamy and Congolese producer-director Ngangura Mweze. He also appeared in a cameo role in the 2012 Belgian drama film ‘Kinshasa Kids’.
Papa leaves behind a body of work that spans decades and rivals some of Congolese great musicians. His discography is made up of, at least, 42 records on which he sang on or composed.
Jimi Sadare, CEO, Effrakata Entertainment, a company that aggregates Francophone music through a telecommunication based in South Africa described Wemba’s demise as “a great loss to Africa”. He threw more light on the last moments of the music icon.

“The concert he performed at was promoted by Magic System. Immediately I heard the sad news I called my contacts and I was told he had done two tracks and was about to perform the third track when he collapsed. It is very unfortunate. We were in the process of bringing him to Nigeria. One of my musicians had started talking to him. I never got to meet him but I am very much in touch with Koffi Olomide whose visit to Nigeria I have facilitated many times.

“Olomide was due in Nigeria this weekend. Everyone knows Wemba was Olomide’s mentor. Being educated and a graduate of Mathematics from a university in Paris, Olomide had become increasingly popular and this brought about a friction between them. The bitterness was so bad that Olomide had to leave Paris and return to Kinshasha. He pioneered the Tchao Sound. They later made up and waxed a reunion album, ‘Wake Up’.”

In a tribute, the President and Executive Producer, International Committee of the All Africa Music Awards, AFRIMA, Mr. Mike Dada, said, “we feel a sense of humongous loss since the announcement of the death of Papa Wemba. This is the time we at AFRIMA and Africa at large need him the most. He was one of the African music legends that had shown interest in attending AFRIMA 3.0 in November. He was an icon of African music and epitome of Africanness. His pride and commitment to African music and sense of dressing were part of the narratives of African culture. These are the African narratives we shared and are propagating across the world.”