© Douglas Kirkland
Words by Nigel Williamson
“Congo is the motherland of African music,” Papa Wemba always said, a proudly patriotic view rooted in his years growing up in Kinshasa in the 1950s and 60s, when the sound of Congolese rumba rocked harder and more irresistibly than any other beat on the continent.
By 1969 he was singing with Zaiko Langa Langa, one of the new wave bands taking up the baton from the pioneering groups led by the likes of Franco and Le Grand Kalle. Mixing traditional African styles with Western rock, he went on to form Viva La Musica, which by the early 80s was one of the most popular bands in what had become Zaire, as Wemba became a trend-setter not only in music but in fashion, too, leading the dandified cult known as les Sapeurs (the Society of Cool and Elegant People), fetishising Western designer brands which had been banned under president Mobutu’s policy of authenticité.
A move to Paris put him in pole position to spearhead the world music explosion of the 80s as the popularity of the hip-swivelling rhythms of soukous spread across the dance floors of Europe. He was subsequently signed to the Real World label by Peter Gabriel, with whom he toured, and became a WOMAD favourite.
Maintaining separate bands in Europe and Africa and travelling constantly between the two continents, he became caught up in an immigration racket known as ngulu, as those seeking to flee war-torn Congo were hidden among the entourages of African bands touring Europe. His part in the scam earned him a jail sentence in France in 2003, but he insisted he had acted purely for humanitarian reasons.
He will be remembered as one of Africa’s greatest voices and although he died far too young at the age of 66, he would surely have regarded it as fitting that his final moments on earth were spent on stage with his band in Abidjan.