Papa Wemba, Congolese Master of the Interwoven Musics of the Black Atlantic

The legendary singer never lost his relevance – as an elder, a mentor, a collaborator, a style icon, and a tireless and exhilarating performer.

Papa Wemba. Credit: TV5 Monde/Wikimedia

Papa Wemba. Credit: TV5 Monde/Wikimedia

A death on stage is still a death; a death too early. Still, we have it on good authority that Papa Wemba made his exit the way he wanted – at the edge of dawn on Sunday, April 24, before an adoring crowd, his band and dancers carrying the rhythm for a long, eerie moment, captured on the live broadcast, before noticing and rushing to their fallen leader.

At 66, Wemba, the Congolese singer and bandleader of near-mythic status, had no plans to leave so soon, but he had told all who cared to hear – his fellow artist and ex-protégé Koffi Olomide; the French Antillean veteran broadcaster Claudy Siar – that he could think of no better way to pass than on stage. And so it was, of heart failure, in Abidjan, the metropolis of Côte d’Ivoire, at a festival organised by the youngbloods from Magic System, who had asked Wemba to bless their event with his aura and experience.

Who was Papa Wemba? For two or three generations of Africans – the generalisation is appropriate here, so ubiquitous was his presence – the question did not pose itself. He did not epitomise Congolese music: that milieu is too rich, too fundamental to African pop, too complex with its history of genius bandleaders and recombinant bands, their line-ups in eternal flux, to make one man its symbol. So he was less, but also more: the most successful to break off, in the Seventies, from the essential Independence-era bands of Grand Kallé, Franco, and Tabu Ley Rochereau; the first to cross over, with the birth of “world music” in the late 1980s, working with Peter Gabriel or the French producer Martin Meissonier (yet maintaining his fiery, in-the-tradition band Viva La Musica back home in Kinshasa all the while); and one of the most visible exponents of la Sape, the strutting sartorial style, equally dandyish and outré, that came to characterise Congolese pop culture, fodder of magazine shoots to this day. In his last night on this earth, Wemba – who off-stage looked like a kind uncle, perhaps a professor or recently-retired civil servant, with his eyeglasses and salt-and-pepper beard – wore baggy shin-length shorts, a shirt of brilliant white ornamented in a baroque black pattern, and a huge red hat, high and bulbous with a narrow brim. He had felt out of sorts a few days earlier, we now know, but was imperious and expansive on stage – until the moment he was not.

His catalog is overwhelming – 40 albums or more, depending on what gets counted. In the early 1970s he was part of Zaïko Langa Langa: one of that era’s new-generation bands, which broke from convention in Congolese rumba – itself the result of a deep diasporic exchange that carried Central African drum and chant patterns to the New World, with the slaves, and exported back són and rumba starting in the 1930s – casting away the horns, loading up on guitars, and speeding the pace. He left Zaïko in 1974, taking some bandmates with him. Several names and line-ups later, he formed Viva La Musica in 1977, a group that, through interruptions and renewals – including when Wemba himself wandered off to join Franco and Tabu Ley projects – survives today. In the 1990s and later, he recorded under his own name, as well as with Viva La Musica, and with a third unit, Nouvelle Ecriture, in which he brought up younger players. When in Europe, he lived in Belgium and France; but his base remained Kinshasa, specifically the Matonge district, where he called his compound the Village Molokaï – named, quirkily, for an island in Hawaii, which he heard about on an old US television series.

To each pair of ears its favourite period. For this writer, the ’80s sound brings a special delight, when soukous – the name for that faster, funkier evolution of rumba – was in its pomp, and before the world-fusion projects, R&B infusions, and inter-generational hip-hop experiments; not that there is anything wrong with that. But for the earlier Congolese sound, a new listener might first consult Grand Kalle or Franco and his T.P. OK Jazz band; for more recent jams, the soukous-crooner Koffi Olomide, the fast and furious Awilo Longomba, the avant-garde Baloji, the rapper Youssoupha (himself son of Tabu Ley Rochereau), or many others.

Papa Wemba never lost his relevance – as an elder, a mentor, a collaborator, a style icon, and a tireless and exhilarating performer. But listen to albums like “Biloko Ya Moto,” “8ème Anniversaire,” “Destin Ya Moto,” or others from the mid-1980s to feel the sound that swept the African continent (and much of the diaspora) in those days: the exquisite vocal harmonies, the virtuosic guitars, the complex and sinuous polyrhythms, and the magic moment – typically mid-song, but sometimes earlier – when the slow-paced vocal-led section ends and the double-time part called the sebene kicks in and carries the song, and the audience, to its paroxysm. Now imagine the concerts: each tune stretched to 10 minutes or more; the back-up singers, the male and female dancers, the outfits – shiny, skimpy, elaborate, over-the-top; the bodies gyrating, especially around and below the hips. Papa Wemba sometimes shared lead vocals, but the sweet near-falsetto with perfect control was his, and everyone knew it from the first note.

Papa Wemba leaves much else behind; an abundant trove of YouTube videos awaits the curious listener, garnished with complicated debates in the comments as connoisseurs discuss versions and band line-ups, or argue about release dates. (A typical Congolese record might have had a local release in one year, living on cassette tape, before being picked up by a small European label some years later, and then seeing – with any luck – a recent digital release.) One lovely artefact is his duet with Koffi Olomide, “Wake Up,” with its extended video that sees the two dapper men bringing play and life to some drab European city.

Another is the 1987 feature film La vie est belle, in which Wemba plays a small-town guy who ventures penniless to Kinshasa to make it in the music industry.

His legacy isn’t pristine. Like all artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he had to deal with successive repressive rulers, including Mobutu Sese Seko (under whom the country was called Zaire) and his successor Laurent Kabila; while some soukous artists became régime mouthpieces, most, including Wemba, trod a line between accommodation in better times and refuge abroad in worse ones. More problematic was his 2003 arrest in Belgium, and subsequent trial in France, for visa trafficking; apparently he was securing visas for young Congolese on the false claim that they were in his band. He received only a light sentence, however; and defenders point out that this was also a time of civil war in Congo, when there was much to flee. Whatever the case, he was soon back out and performing, and never got in trouble again. He also moved closer to his Christian practice, though it never got in the way of his musical life.

Papa Wemba died in the midst of a tragic four-day stretch that began with the death of Prince and ended with that of Billy Paul, the elder Philadelphia soul singer – three big losses in quick succession for the interwoven musics of the Black Atlantic.  On the fourth night after Wemba’s passing, a massive concert in his honour took place in Abidjan, with the crème de la crème of the Ivorian scene performing with Wemba’s band, and his wife and children attending. Tributes have poured in, from artists to heads of state. Wemba’s body has now been flown to Kinshasa, where thousands of mourners came to the airport. Before he is buried, he will lie in state. Rest in peace, doyen. The sebene plays on.

Siddhartha Mitter is a freelance journalist in New York City. He tweets at @siddhmi.