Obituary: Papa Wemba – Africa’s rhumba king

25 April 2016

Papa Wemba, the influential Congolese musician known for the hits Esclave, Kaokokokorobo and Le Voyageur, died during a concert on 24 April 2016, following a fall on stage. He was 66 years old.

Wemba was known as a cross-cultural icon in the world music genre, collaborating with artists from Sri Lanka, France and the United States, including British musician Peter Gabriel. He ferociously incubated new African music, art and film talent in a number of art communes in Kinshasa and Paris, France, giving African culture a stepping stone into larger markets.

“He was known as a true trendsetter,” Suzana Omiyo told Al Jazeera following the news of his death. Omiyo, a popular Kenyan musician, worked with Wemba.

Born Jules Wembadio Kikumba in the small river community of Lubefu, in the now Democratic Republic of Congo, Wemba began his musical career with the Zaiko Langa Langa group in 1969, mixing African sounds with more contemporary Western rock and pop music. The group played the legendary Rumble in the Jungle: Zaire 74 concert along with James Brown and Miriam Makeba.

Wemba moved on to several other band projects, culminating in his most prominent group as leader, Viva la Musica. He had his most international success with Viva la Musica, primarily in France and other French-speaking territories, including Belgium and Canada, during the early 1980s. Around this time, Wemba discovered the young singer songwriter Koffi Olomide, who went on to become one of the top-selling African artists in the world.

Settling in Paris in 1986, Wemba’s fame grew, following collaborations with Stevie Wonder, signing to Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label and performing at Womad festivals. The last two popularised African and other non-western music – known as world music – across the globe.

He was known for his stylish fashion sense, and was a driving force behind the cultural movement known as the Sapeurs. Sapeurs (“the Society of Atmosphere- setters and Elegant People”) juxtapose elegant colonial fashion with African flare against the backdrop of political volatility in the Congo region.

Wemba called it a way to inspire the youth during turbulent times, promoting what he called “high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation across Zaire”.

On stage, his performances were known for their energetic, fun atmosphere. They featured an extensive band, colourful light shows and a troupe of professional dancers, offering a frenetic multi-media showcase of African culture.

While Wemba was best known as a dance floor filler with largely upbeat, funky compositions, he was always open to experimentation. He released more than 30 albums, filled with a number of critically acclaimed ballads, soulful instrumentals and indigenous African folk songs.

His popularity outside Africa opened doors for later groups from the central African region, including fellow Congolese performers Staff Benda Bilili and Konono No 1. Following his death, Wemba and his work have been honoured by fellow African artists, fans and the world on Twitter.

To celebrate the life and art of one of Africa’s greatest talents, watch some of Papa Wemba’s greatest songs:

Source: News24