The King of Congolese Rumba


A revered Musician Dies On Stage
Economist Article Apr 30th 2016

Just days ago, the world, particularly fans in the U.S. mourned the death of Prince, (Prince Rogers Nelson) the American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, and actor. He was a musical innovator and known for his eclectic work, flamboyant stage presence, extravagant dress and makeup, and wide vocal range. His music integrates a wide variety of styles, including funk, rock, R&B, new wave, soul, psychedelia, and pop.

Prince sold over 100 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. He won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award for the film Purple Rain. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.  He was considered one of the most influential artists of the rock & roll era.
(Jun 07, 1958 – Apr 21, 2016 (age 57).  Prince, like so many American musicians before him died tragically as a result of some measure of attachment to various drugs to which there is a more profound narrative to discuss.

This post centers on the loss of another highly celebrated musical artist from Africa, whose statue was in my view, as highly favored as any the U.S. has ever produced.  What is perhaps more compelling is the fact that his name and body of work isn’t as widely known around the world or in the United States.  That said, on the African continent, the name Papa Wemba and his music making by comparision, is as grandly celebrated as any American popular artist in the last 50 years.  Here is his story published in the The Economist (April 30th – May 6th 2016 Issue)

MOST people measure their national history in rulers; Britons count back in monarchs, Americans in presidents. Many Congolese like to reflect on five generations of musicians, whose languorous rumbas and faster modern beats, adored across Africa and beyond, have served them better than any government. Papa Wemba, who died on stage in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 24th, was of the third musical generation. But as the most travelled of Congo’s peripatetic singers, possessed of a distinctive and beautiful voice, he often seemed to stand for them all.

Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, as he was properly called, was born in Lubefu, central Congo, in 1949. This was at the end of a decade of growth, driven partly by wartime demand for Congolese resources. A swelling music scene in the colonial capital, Léopoldville, catering for a rising African middle class, was one result. It was fuelled by enthusiasm for the new Congolese rumba, a sound the first generation of stars had repurposed from the Cuban songs they discovered on a budget range of ten-inch, 78rpm records put out by a British label, “His Master’s Voice”. Wemba moved to the city soon after.

Wemba’s first band, Zaiko Langa Langa, launched in 1969, announced him as an innovator, not an acolyte, however. Its name came from a garbled folksaying about the Zaire, or Congo, river—Zaire ya bankoko, “Zaire of our ancestors”. But Zaiko was rebellious, not folkish. Reacting against the big bands of the latest titans of the rumba, such as François “Franco” Luambo, Zaiko swapped brass instruments for a snare drum and electric guitars, and upped the tempo. The critics were scandalised; but this was a time of hope and change in Congo which Zaiko’s thrusting rhythms captured. After five years of upheaval and war, following Belgium’s abrupt exit from the country in 1960, Congo was enjoying a burst of optimism under Mobutu Sese Seko, its first dictator. By 1970 the Congolese were buying a million records a year.

Then Mobutu lost the plot. He launched a nativist programme, “Zairianisation”, which began as a cultural revivalist campaign and would end with the expropriation of white-owned industry, wrecking the economy. Wemba, who, like all Congo’s star musicians, naturally maintained an ambivalent attitude to power—sometimes critical, but generally compliant—at first played along. He and his bandmates adopted folk instruments such as the lokole, a log-drum; he would also sometimes perform in traditional raffia skirts, wearing hats decorated with cowrie shells. But Wemba soon became associated with a more compelling and subversive fashion movement, the Religion Kitembo, or “worship of clothes”, which was in part a sardonic comment on the charmless weeds and general decay that Zairianisation had brought.

Through the sad boulevards of Kinshasa—as the Congolese capital had been renamed—worshippers strutted (and they strut still) in glorious assemblages, perhaps matching a sharp suit with an ebony cane and a fur coat, quite possibly lifted from some faraway European boutique. They were also known as Sapeurs, after another of their names, in English, The Society of Ambience Makers and Elegant People; and Wemba—Le Pape de la Sape, “the Pope of Sapeurs”—was the movement’s high priest. “Listen my love,” he sang, “On our wedding day/The label will be Torrente/The label will be Giorgio Armani/The label will be Daniel Hechter/The label for the shoes will be J.M. Weston.”

By now the star performer of several bands—including Viva La Musica, whose hit single “Ana Lengo” sold half a million copies in Africa—Wemba wanted more than a wilting Kinshasa could provide. In the early 1980s he moved to Paris, where he produced ballads in Lingala and pop versions of the rumba, more accessible to a Western audience that was increasingly eager for exotic “World” music. He sang with Stevie Wonder and toured with Peter Gabriel, whose Real World label produced one of his best-selling albums, “Emotion”. He kept his feet in Congo, however—as was apparent, in 2003, when he was arrested in Paris, and briefly jailed, for smuggling dozens of Congolese into Europe as bogus members of his entourage.

His fans back in Kinshasa were aggrieved. The fine reputation of Congolese musicians is one of their country’s last boasts. Many also believed Wemba, despite his success, had been overcharging desperate migrants for their passage. But they still turned out, in multitudes, to welcome him home to Kinshasa from prison. And when Wemba announced, at a packed press conference, that although he had reconnected with Jesus there, he still liked dancing and pretty girls, the crowd thundered with joy and relief.

Papa Wemba’s Album, “Emotion” on the Real World Records label, 1995 is a must for any world music library.