Papa Wemba: king of the rumba
Papa Wemba is hailed as the king of modern rumba (although the father is probably Wendo Kolosoy). He is certainly the best-known star of the genre. His career started in Kinshasa, when he joined the influential Soukous band Zaiko Langa Langa, when it was created in December 1969, along with many well known Congolese musicians including Nyoka Longo Jossart and Bimi Ombale.
Wemba (full name Jules Presley Shungu Wembadio) was instrumental in the success of Zaiko Langa Langa which became one of the more successful Congolese groups by the early seventies. Popular hits included “Chouchouna,” “Eluzam,” “Mbeya Mbeya,” “BP ya Munu,” “Mwana Wabi,” and “Mizou,” and “Zania”.
At the height of the band’s success, Wemba and other members left to create Isifi Lokole. But it was the creation of Viva Musica in 1977 that was the defining moment for Wemba. Hit songs included “Mère Superieure,” “Mabele Mokonzi”, “Bokulaka” and “Princesse ya Sinza”. Antoine Agbepa (better known as Koffi Olomide), was the writer of most of the group’s hit songs. Agbepa was such an impressive songwriter that one day Papa Wemba exclaimed, “Ooh! l’homme idee” (Oh! the idea-man!), which then became the stage name of Koffi Olomide, who remains an important star in Congolese music.
After the wave of African emigration to Europe in the 1990s, Wemba maintained one group in Kinshasa (called at times “Nouvelle Ecriture”, “Nouvel Ecrita” or “Viva la Musica”) and another one in Paris (“Nouvelle Generation,” “La Cour des Grands” and now “Viva Tendance”). He also recorded and toured consistently with the hits “L’Esclave” (1986), “Le Voyageur, Maria Valencia” (1992), “Foridoles, Dixième Commandement” (1994), “Emotion” (1995), “Pole Position” (1996), “Bakala dia Kuba” (2001) and “Somo Trop” (2003).
In 1987, Wemba 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 also had a cameo role in the Belgian drama Kinshasa Kids.
In 2003, the constant coming-and-going of Congolese musicians between Congo and Europe attracted the attention of the French authorities. Wemba was arrested in Paris on suspicion of people smuggling. He was eventually found guilty in June 2003 and spent three and a half months in prison. Many people resented his actions, as the charges subsequently made it far more difficult for bona-fide African musicians to receive visas to travel to Europe.
Prison and death
After his release, Wemba declared to have undergone a spiritual conversion in jail and 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. Wemba died after suffering a seizure when appearing on stage in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on April 24, 2016 at the age of 66.
Ultimately, Wemba was certainly a star but never managed to break through to the larger awareness outside African music circles enjoyed by people such as Youssou N’Dour.