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Papa Wemba: Rhumba, Elegance and the Passing of an Era

Just more than half a century ago, in the Belgian Congo, a baby was learning his first words, words that would grow into music and diffuse from Kinshasa into the veins of Africa’s dance floors with its soft melody, rhythmic cadences and hot guitar riffs. That baby grew up to become Papa Wemba – Le Pape de la Sape, Kasai Nightingale, King of Rhumba, a master of his art and musical genius.



Kourou walks barefoot down an all-weather road. Children run to him as he approaches a village. “Kourou! Kourou! Kourou!” they shout. Animated, he begins to sing. The crowd grows and joins in the singing. When the music tapers off, the crowd disperses. Kourou sits down with an old man. He says, “One day, I will also play electric music.”

Kourou sets out for Kinshasa to pursue his dreams. Cities can beguile. He gets a job as a domestic worker for Mamou, Nvouandou’s wife. She is childless. Nvouandou, a club owner awash with cash, lavishes attention on a young woman, Kabibi. But Kourou and Kabibi fall in love, creating the perfect backdrop for an electrifying film. In the end, Kourou wins Kabibi and his musical dreams come true.

Kourou is played by Papa Wemba and the film is La vie est belle, a 1987 Congolese film, released internationally as ‘Life is Rosy’. The film mirrors the life of the future pioneer of a blend of Congolese music, Cuban rhumba and electric rock. Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, popularly known as Papa Wemba, was born in 1949 in Lubefu, Kasai-Oriental province in Belgian Congo. Like Kourou, Papa Wemba began singing in a choir at an early age and left his village for Kinshasa to launch a musical career.

La Vie est belle is a 1987 film directed by Mweze Ngangura and Benoît Lamy.

La Vie est belle is a 1987 film directed by Mweze Ngangura and Benoît Lamy.

The Belgian Congo of the 1940s, like much of Africa, was a world caricatured by white anthropologists. African peoples were historically depicted as savages even though their resources were building European capitals. When Germany invaded Belgium, hundreds of thousands of Belgians ran away from Nazi Europe to enjoy the spoils of their own Nazism in Africa. The invasion thrust Congo into World War II. The country became a source of uranium for American and British bombs. But when, in December 1941, uranium miners in Élisabethville converged at the Union Minière football stadium to strike over severe conditions and forced labour, the Force Publique opened fire. History would call it the Élisabethville Massacre. Artists would preserve its memory in art and folklore.

In Kin la Belle, Yvonne Adhiambo’s essay on Chimurenga’s African Cities Reader II, Kinshasa, we learn, throbs with a language born out of music and spoken in microtones. “Lingala has a pain-filled past. It carries many wounds. It was the official language of the hated and mostly diabolic Force Publique, the hand cutting the colonial army that served the whims of the greatest genocidaire of the modern world, Leopold II. Lingala is suffused with the waters of Congo’s sufferings.”



Congolese musicians learnt Cuban styles and created a hybrid with a strong traditional Zaïrean flavour – distinct, poetic, melodious, rhythmic.


The cross-pollination of peoples in the Congo basin, as cultures collided and intermingled, drawn by mineral wealth, opened up a market for Cuban music. Belgians hired Afro-Cuban ensembles to entertain colonial officers in Léopoldville. Congolese musicians learnt Cuban styles and created a hybrid with a strong traditional Zaïrean flavour – distinct, poetic, melodious, rhythmic.

Papa Wemba came of age in the 1960s, singing with the band Zaïko Langa Langa. Simaro Lutumba, poet, soukous rhythm guitarist and songwriter, says that Papa Wemba belongs to the seventh generation of musicians that started with the rise to fame of such music bands. Soon Papa Wemba was ruling the airwaves with breakneck drum beats and frantic guitar riffs, and showcasing Afro-Caribbean dance styles in concerts and dance floors.

He left the band in 1974 for a series of short-lived bands such as Isisfi Lokole and Yoka Lokole. In 1977 he founded Viva la Musica, a band that would define his entire musical life. Papa Wemba and the band moved to Paris in the 1980s, a move that opened up opportunities for collaboration with other great artists like Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel and Eric Clapton, as well as his Congolese contemporaries. He toured the world, filling football stadiums from the United States to Japan, and receiving accolades and awards. In 1996, the inaugural Kora All-Africa awards named him ‘Best Male Artist’.


His star did not dim even for a minute. He continued headlining major music festivals and concerts. In 2008, Papa Wemba performed in London in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. He still pursued musical innovation, with the years post 2000 marking a transition to a silky R&B sound reminiscent of tunes such as “Ye Te Oh”, even collaborating with new hip-hop flavours such as Tony Madinda in ‘O’Koningana’.


The Pope of the Sapeurs


He was a style icon and a godfather of a surprising sartorial sub-culture of young men with a penchant for looking rosy



Papa Wemba’s youthful role in La vie est belle was to mirror his approach to life. He became the spirit behind the Society for the Advancement of Elegant People, popularly known as Sapeurs. He was Le Pape de la Sape or The Pope of the Sapeurs, a style icon and a godfather of a surprising sartorial sub-culture of young men with a penchant for looking rosy – an eccentric flamboyant fashion style, of three-piece suits, flashy accessories, and shiny black leather shoes – unperturbed by the hardships and hopelessness around them.

He said in an interview with CNN that he was inspired by how his parents dressed up on Sundays, “always well put together, always looking very smart.”

Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango told the BBC’s Newshour that Papa Wemba’s “whole attitude about dressing well was part of the narrative that we Africans have been denied our humanity for so long. People have always had stereotypes about us, and he was saying dressing well is not just a matter of money, not just something for Westerners, but that we Africans also have elegance. It was all about defining ourselves and refusing to be stripped of our humanity.”


The Passing of an Era



The cover art of Emotion, an album by Papa Wemba

The cover art of Emotion, an album by Papa Wemba

Death is never a stranger to legends. Papa Wemba often said he felt that he would die on stage during a performance. He always envisioned himself flying while on stage.

When he collapsed mid performance at the Urban Musical Festival Anoumabo in Abidjan –dressed in a bold black and white patterned tunic with an oversized bowler hat – as the drums completed his guitar riff and the cymbal clanged to a stop and dancers turned their feet towards the king and confusion circled the heads of fans – the Kasaï Nightingale was flying away.

Papa Wemba’s body returned home to honour. President Joseph Kabila gave him a posthumous title: Grand Officer of the National Heroes Kabila-Lumumba. The Cultural minister promised that a theatre will be built in his memory. Cameroon’s Manu Dibango called him the voice of Africa. JB Mpiana eulogized Papa as his idol. Kinshasa’s mayor Andre Kimbuta called him a master of art, a man of talent and genius. Kinshasa’s Governor called him the high priest of Congolese music.

Papa rests at the Necropole Entre Ciel et Terre (Graveyard Between Heaven and Earth), a cemetery on the outskirts of Kinshasa, in a gold-plated casket.

For us non-Congolese, Lingala transported us in a language we did not understand. On dance floors, we threw our legs forward in a playful catch-it-if-you-can, ndombolo footwork. We stepped and swayed.


Today in Nairobi, between sips of Tusker, we still sway to Kaokokokorobo. Zantoin. Bakala dia kuba. With L’Esclave, we commemorate the African slaves taken to plantations in the Americas. We remember Franco Luambo Makiadi, Madilu System – all the great artists who introduced African sounds to global ears.

Deep down, we know an era is passing.