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With his dynamic vocals and flamboyant personality, Papa Wemba (born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) played an essential role in the evolution of Central African music. Respectfully known as "the King of Rhumba," Wemba successfully fused African traditions with Western pop and rock influences. A co-founder of Zaiko Langa Langa in 1970, he went on to international attention as the leader of Isife Lokole in 1974, and Viva La Musica since 1976. According to publicity materials for the Womadelaide festival, Wemba "creates wonderfully infectious music, combining the sophistication of a Paris nightclub with the vibe of an African open-air concert." While www.fyiucalgary.com proclaimed that "his voice is gold and his music makes you want to dance," www.afropop.com declared that he offered "just the right balance between traditional African music and Western pop." Born in the Kinshasa region of what was then the Belgian Congo and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wemba was taught that he was descended from a long line of BaTetela warrior chieftains. His mother, a professional mourner who sang at funeral wakes, had a profound influence on his singing. He recalled in a late-'90s interview, "If mother was still alive, I would be rich in words and rich in melodies. She was my first teacher and my first audience." Wemba didn't begin singing until joining the choir of a Roman Catholic Church after the death of his father, a chief of customs, in 1966. The experience sharpened his abilities to sing in minor keys. Helping to form Zaiko Langa Langa in 1969, Wemba remained with the group for four years. During that time, the group went from playing American R&B to focusing on traditional Zairian dance music. Their hits included several Wemba-penned tunes, such as "Pauline," "C'est la Vérité," "Chouchouna," and "Liwa Ya Somo." Leaving Zaiko Langa Langa in 1974, Wemba formed the first bands of his own, Isife Lokole and Yoka Lokole. Both groups used the lokole, a hollow tree trunk played with two sticks, as a rhythmic foundation. Moving to the village of Molokai in the center of Kinshasa's Matonge district in 1977, Wemba formed his most successful group, Viva la Musica. Their music continued to reflect an authenticity campaign launched by President Mobutu. Wemba appeared frequently on state-sponsored television, talking about the influence of traditional Zairian music and the importance of the authenticity campaign. From the beginning, Viva La Musica's reputation was built as much on their passion for designer clothes as their music (www.afropop.org described the band's garb as "baggy, pleated trousers, hemmed above shiny brogues, and hair clipped close at the sides"). Fans inspired by the band's style of dress began dressing similarly and were known as "La Sape," taken from the expression, "La Société des Ambienceus et ces Personnes D'Élégance." Viva la Musica was extremely popular among the Congo's youth. Their first year climaxed with the Kinshasa newspaper Elima naming the band best orchestra, Wemba best singer, and their single, "Mère Supérieure," best song. Over the next three years, the group continued to record hit singles, including "Moku Nyon Nyon," "Nyekesse Migue'l," and "Cou Cou Dindon." Determined to capture a European following, Wemba and Viva La Musica vocalist Rigo Star took a six-month sabbatical from the band in 1979 to join Tabu Ley Rochereau's group, Afrisa International. Relocating to Paris in the early '80s, Wemba formed a second version of Viva la Musica. While this group took a more Westernized approach, the original band continued to perform indigenous-based music. Wemba explained, "My original group is there for me Zairian fans who come to hear typical African sounds but when I decided to be a singer with an international name, I formed another group to appeal to a different public." Wemba appeared in the late-'80s musical revue Africa Oye!, and toured as the opening act for Peter Gabriel's Secret World tour in 1993. He received a best artist Kora award at the first All-African music awards ceremony three years later. Wemba has continued to fuse the musical traditions of his homeland and Western pop. His 1995 album Emotion was produced by Stephen Hague of Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and New Order fame.
Papa Wemba was born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in 1949 in Lubefu (Sankuru District, Belgian Congo). He is a Congolese rumba (later known as soukous) musician, one of Africa's most popular musicians, and prominent in world music.
ContentsMusical history1.1 Zaiko Langa Langa1.2 Isifi1.3 Viva la Musica
Zaiko Langa Langa
Papa Wemba was one of the very first musicians to join the influential Soukous band, Zaiko Langa Langa when it was created in December 1969 in Kinshasa along with such well known Congolese musicians as Nyoka Longo Jossart, Manuaku Pepe Felly, Evoloko Lay Lay, Bimi Ombale, Teddy Sukami, Zamuangana Enock, Mavuela Simeon, Clan Petrole and others.
In a Congolese musical world dominated at the time by Franco Luambo and his remarkable band TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa, and by then-new musical groups such as Les Grands Maquisards, Le Trio Madjesi, and even younger bands such as Bella-Bella, Thu Zaina and Empire Bakuba, the young and talented Papa Wemba (then known as Jules Presley Shungu Wembadio) was one of the driving forces that, by 1973, made Zaiko Langa Langa one of the most-performing dominant Congolese groups, featuring such popular numbers as "Chouchouna" (Papa Wemba), "Eluzam" and " Mbeya Mbeya" (Evoloko Lay Lay), "BP ya Munu" (Efonge Gina), "Mwana Wabi" and "Mizou" (Bimi Ombale) and "Zania" (Mavuela Somo).
In December 1974, at the pinnacle of their fame (and just a month after the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa), Shungu Wembadio (Papa Wemba), along with Evoloko Lay Lay, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana (who had joined Zaiko Langa Langa a year earlier), left Zaiko Langa Langa to establish their own musical ensemble Isifi Lokole, ISIFI being an acronym for "Institut du Savoir Ideologique pour la Formation des Idoles". Yet of course, not everything that Wemba claims in earnest can be taken as gospel. In July 1975, Shungu Wembadio officially adopted the soon-to-be-well-known worldwide artist name Papa Wemba, the addition of "Papa" (father) an allusion to what were in fact rather awesome family responsibilities as the first son in a family where both father and mother (Wemba's parents) had been deceased since the 1960s.
The "feux d'artifice" (fireworks) that was Isifi Lokole would only last a year, with the single "Amazone" (Papa Wemba) as its biggest commercial "hit" record. In November 1975, Papa Wemba, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana abandoned Evoloko Lay Lay and Isifi Lokole to create the group Yoka Lokole (also known as The Kinshasa's Wa Fania All-Stars, or Lokole Isifi, or simply Isifi), along with Mbuta Mashakado, another Zaiko Langa Langa "transfusion". Yoka Lokole enjoyed slightly less popular success than the original Isifi Lokole, but for a time still managed to remain at the top the African pop music wave with hit songs including "Matembele Bangui", "Lisuma ya Zazu" (Papa Wemba), "Mavuela Sala Keba", and "Bana Kin" (Mavuela Somo).
Like Isifi Lokole, the electronic-instrument-driven Yoka Lokole (or The Kinshasa All-Stars) would not last much longer than a year, given the merger of so many big-name talents in the band's lineup. After a year of modest success, controversies within Yoka Lokole over money and prestige (complicated by Wemba's arrest and brief incarceration in Kinshasa Central prison in December 1976 for the "crime" of being suspected of having had physical intimacy with an influential army general's daughter) would lead Papa Wemba, then feeling diminished by peers and neglected by the public, to form his own group Viva la Musica in February 1977, after a very brief return to Isifi Lokole and Stukas Boys of Lita Bembo, where he played for a few weeks as a guest.
Viva la Musica
At his home in the Matonge neighborhood of Kinshasa, Papa Wemba structured Viva la Musica around young talented artists such as singers Kisangani Esperant, Jadot le Cambodgien, Pepe Bipoli and Petit Aziza, guitarists Rigo Star, Syriana, and Bongo Wende. A young man by the name of Antoine Agbepa (currently known as Koffi Olomide), whose friend were calling "Cheri O", was the unknown writer of most of the group's hit songs. The group had nearly instantaneous success with hit songs that included "Mere Superieure," "Mabele Mokonzi", "Bokulaka," "Princesse ya Sinza", and others.
At the height of his success in 1977, Papa Wemba's family home, in Kanda-Kanda street, which had become a popular, some even said hallowed place for Matonge youths to gather "à la mode" (i.e., to be cool), was named the "Village Molokai," and Wemba assumed the exalted moniker "Chef Coutumier" (Chief) of the Village of Molokai. That village in the heart of Matonge, included the following streets, which firsts letters were used to form the acronym: M-O-LO-KA-I: asimanimba-shwe-LOkolama-KAnda-kanda-nzia.
In those days people referred to Wemba as the "chief from the heartland (village)" to differentiate him from Kinshasa-born musical bigshots Mavuela Somo and Mashakado. However, years later Mavuela would say that their difficulties simply amounted to trivial foolishness over money, ambition and fame between some very young people (as at the time they all were).
Since 1977, Viva la Musica has seen both the "defections" of musicians every two or three years and the entrée and emergence of other new talents. Fafa de Molokai, Debs Debaba, King Kester Emeneya (1977–82), Koffi Olomide, as a singer, (1978–79), Djuna Djanana (1978–81), Dindo Yogo (1979–1981), Maray-Maray (1980–84), Lidjo Kwempa (1982–2001), Reddy Amissi (1982–2001), Stino Mubi (1983–2001) are among the currently well-known Congolese musicians who have served at one time or another with Viva la Musica. An old Kinshasa anecdote says that a college student then-named Antoine Agbepa Koffi was such an impressive songwriter that one day in 1977 Papa Wemba exclaimed, "Ooh! l'homme idee" (Oh! the idea-man!), thereby on-the-spot renaming the impressive young singer-songwriter Koffi Olomide - and the name stuck.
After the wave of African emigration to Europe in the 1990s, Wemba maintained one group in Kinshasa (called at times "Nouvelle Ecriture", "Nouvel Ecrita", and now again "Viva la Musica") and another one in Paris ("Nouvelle Generation," "La Cour des Grands," and now "Viva Tendance"). He has also consistently maintained a high profile in world music with such great hits as "L'Esclave" (1986), "Le Voyageur, Maria Valencia" (1992), "Foridoles, Dixieme Commandement" (1994), "Emotion" (1995), "Pole Position" (1996), "M’Zée Fula-Ngenge" (1999), "Bakala dia Kuba" (2001), and "Somo Trop" (2003).
Wemba is also known as an actor. In 1987, he played the male lead role in the successful Zairean (Congolese) film La Vie est Belle by Belgian director Benoît Lamy and Congolese producer-director Ngangura Mweze. In 2012, he had a cameo role in the Belgian drama film Kinshasa Kids.Harris, Craig. "Biography: Papa Wemba". Allmusic. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
High and low times
On 18 February 2003, suspected of being involved in a network that has allegedly smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) into Europe, Papa Wemba was arrested at his home in Paris.
He was eventually found guilty at some level in June 2003 and spent three and a half months in prison, an experience that, on his release after a €30,000 bail was posted, he declared had had a profound psychological effect on him. The singer claimed to have undergone a spiritual conversion in jail and even recounted this episode on his album Somo Trop (released in October 2003). On the song "Numéro d'écrou", he recalled the day "God" paid a visit to his cell.
In 1979, Papa Wemba became the leader of the Sapeur (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d'Élégance or SAPE) which he promoted as a youth cult. Wemba said:
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.
Recently, Priyan Weerappuli, leader of the Sri Lankan group Pahan Silu, referred to Wemba as being among his greatest musical influences.Erroll Barnett, "The fashion cult cut from a different cloth", Inside Africa - CNN, November 9, 2012. CBC Radio Dispatches, "Revellers and Elegant People", February 10, 2011 "Enter the SAPE, 1980-1982", Papa Wemba website.