Known as the Kasai Nightingale, Papa Wemba, a frontline Congolese musician from DR Congo was the undisputed king of Rhumba Rock and also a stylish fashion icon who helped to popularise the La Sape look.
Born on 14th of June 1949 in Lubefu, a community in the Sankuru District of Kasaï-Oriental (East Kasai), one of the ten provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wemba’s given birth name was Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba.
“There was always the influence of religious music on my voice because, with religious music, the minor key always recurs. When I compose songs, I often use the minor key.”
Wemba began singing in the choir before moving to Kinshasa in the 1960s and with the creation of the rock-rumba band, Zaiko Langa Langa in December 1969, he became one of the first musicians to join the group. As a singer/composer, he helped established the band as one of the most successful Congolese groups, before leaving with some band members to form Isifi Lokole in December 1974.
By this time, he was known as Shungu Wembadio, having dropped the Jules following in the steps of the country’s leader to drop or change Western or European names for African ones. He officially adopted in July 1975 the name Papa Wemba. Traditionally being his mother’s first son, he already had access to the name Papa, which became further significant since both his parents were deceased by then.
Isifi Lokole barely lasted a year before Wemba left with some band member to form another group Yoka Lokole. That band also lasted about a year before controversies set in over money. The matter worsened when Wemba was incarcerated in December 1976, for allegedly having an affair with an army general’s daughter, while the band toured without him.
By 1977, Papa Wemba had created a new group, Viva La Musica. In its first year, Viva La Musica was rated as the best orchestra by a popular Kinshasa newspaper, while one of its singles was the best song. Viva La Musica had a strong line-up of young musicians, among who was the then unknown Koffi Olomide.
As the ‘70s ebbed out and gave way to the ‘80s, Papa Wemba began visiting Paris with Viva la Musica, and sometimes alone, to expand his musical horizon. By the ‘90s, he was crossing cultural boundaries as his audience grew. In 1993, he provided backing vocals on Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live and went on the album tour the following year.
“The Sapeur cult provided a high standard of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dressing to a whole generation of youths across Zaire. When I say well-groomed, well-shaven, (and) well-perfumed, it is a characteristic I’m insisting on among the young. I don’t care about their education since education always comes first of all from the family.”
As a fashion and style icon, Papa Wemba was the unofficial leader of La Sape. Sape was an acronym for Société des ambianceurs et des Personness d’Élégance (The Society of Ambience-makers and Elegant People).
Papa Wemba also had some movie credits, playing the lead role in a successful Zairean film, La Vie est Belle (1987). He also had minor roles and cameos in several other films, the most recent being Kinshasa Kids (2012). He is credited as the composer of the score of a couple of films such as La Vie… while he also contributed to the soundtrack of a few others.
During a performance at the FEMUA (Urban Music Festival) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire on April 24, 2016 Papa Wemba fell down on stage, he was rushed to the hospital where he later died at the age of 66 years. He is survived by his wife Mama Marie Lozolo Amazone and several children.
Afro Tourism® salutes the memory and legacy of one of Africa’s finest musicians, the King of Rhumba Rock, fashion and style icon, national hero and African legend, Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba better known as Papa Wemba!
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Feature Image Credit: Papa_Wemba.jpg courtesy of Radio Okapi https://www.flickr.com/
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