Papa Wemba, Congolese Soukous Superstar and Sapeur RIP

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Photo: Stephen
Tom with Papa Wemba in 1989. Photo: Steve Laufer (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

While most people are mourning the tragic death of Prince, I just found out that another great musician died earlier today. Congolese superstar Papa Wemba was performing onstage in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on Saturday night when he collapsed. He was 66. It’s always sad to see one of your heroes die, and it’s even more poignant when they are younger than you.

I met Wemba (b. Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, Léopoldville,  Belgian Congo, 1949) during the Africa Oye musical tour in 1989. June 27, 1989, to be precise. It was held at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Wemba filled-in for the great Congolese rumba maestro Franco, who was then dying of A.I.D.S. I will check out the cassette aircheck from that “Morning Becomes Eclectic” interview, which I’ve just pulled out from my cassette treasure chest.

Wemba’s father, a customs inspector, died just before he was born. He was raised by his mother, who was a professional pleureuse, a professional crier at funerals. Wemba was influenced by his mother, and also from singing in church choirs as a young man.

Papa Wemba was one of the best-known sapeurs (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes or Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) on the Congolese scene in Kinshasha, Paris, and Brussels.  Wemba came to be known as “Le Pape des Sapeurs,” The Pope of Sapeurs. Sape was the term used for modern, flamboyant style in clothing, grooming, hairstyles, all things sartorial. At the Pantages show, I recall that Wemba was on stage wearing a tuxedo jacket, stylish shorts, and black and white shoes.

Wemba was a giant of soukous, the modern Congolese style that emerged in the 1980’s when world music was becoming more popular around the world. It started in the U.S. after King Sunny Ade and Fela ignited interest in the newly-minted world music genre, a modern style African music that was a far cry from the earlier field recordings I’d listened to in the UCLA Ethnomusicology library while playing hooky from my grad school studies. Peter Gabriel, the late Charlie Gillett on the BBC, and KCRW’s weekly show “The African Beat” raised the profiles of all the great African musicians in the early 1980’s continuing until the early 1990’s. African artists got good press back then, and there were constant tours. In Los Angeles alone, there were weekly African shows at the Music Machine, the Alligator Lounge, the Country Club, and many clubs whose doors have now been closed for years.

Of course the Congolese in France and Brussels lived and breathed it already, but we were new to the joys and exuberance of Congolese rumba and soukous. Congolese music combines both African and Cuban styles into a magical mix of dance grooves and pleasure. There was also the influence of American soul music, of James Brown and, in Wemba’s case, Otis Redding.  Soukous derives from the French verb secouer, which means “to shake.” Shake your hips, your booty that is. In salsa music it’s “muevete.” In Trinidadian calypso and soca, the equivalent is “wind your waist.”

Wemba was the lead singer of hugely popular Congolese bands including Zaiko Langa Langa, called “The Rolling Stones of Congolese Music,” and later, Viva la Musica.

C.C. Smith, who inaugurated and hosted KCRW’s “The African Beat” from 1982-1992 with co-hosts Solomon Solo and Ade James, suggested I feature Wemba’s 1988 song “l’Esclave” (the Slave); she knows what she is talking about, so I’ll include it here. Another beautiful song is called “Le Voyageur” (the Voyageur). It’s always been one of my favorite Wemba songs.

And here is Papa in two other videos, looking as bespoke as ever as a leading Congolese sapeur. I love the joy of African music, its exuberance, and Wemba was one of its prime movers.

Here is a heartbreaking announcement on Congolese TV about his death from in front of his home. The guy speaking in the middle of the clip can hardly hold himself together.

Papa Wemba, you will be missed by many.

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