What made Papa Wemba so influential?


Tributes have been pouring in for Congolese musician Papa Wemba who died on Sunday morning after collapsing on stage. African music expert Rita Ray looks at what made him so influential.

Papa Wemba, or Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, was rebellious, prolific, a style icon, at times notorious and always innovative, who was well known as one of the pioneers of modern Congolese soukous music.

But he was very clear about how he wanted to be remembered, according to the sleeve notes from his 1995 album Emotion.


“When people talk about Papa Wemba, I don’t want them to say I am an African singer, or a world music singer,” he said. “I would like people to say just ‘singer’. Because that’s what I am. A singer. Full stop.”

Papa Wemba entered the competitive world of Congolese music in December 1969, 10 years after his country’s independence.

It had been a traumatic era of civil war, assassinations and political instability. Yet the music created there, a potent blend of Cuban, Latin American and traditional African sounds, made Kinshasa the music capital of the continent.


Rumba was all the rage. It crossed boundaries and swept across Africa with the likes of Franco and TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico driving its popularity, their big dance orchestras harking back to the euphoric days of independence.

Then Papa Wemba and a group of forward-looking high school kids formed Zaiko Langa Langa, a band that was to revolutionise rumba music and lay the foundations for the new era of soukous to come.

Influenced by Western pop and rock combos of the 1960s and no doubt a lack of money to buy instruments, Zaiko Langa Langa went against form, they stripped out the horn sections prevalent in the rumba orchestras of the time and pushed the electric guitar and snare drum to the fore.

The band was hip rebellious and became legends of the genre.

They featured several singers singing in harmony and tinkered with the sebene – the fast improvised instrumental section of soukous music.

The name Zaiko is a contraction of Zaire ya bokoko – the Zaire of our ancestors – the langa langa refers to an ethnic group from the equatorial region.

How prescient, President Mobutu Sese Seko was to change the country’s name to Republic of Zaire in 1971. The officially sanctioned authenticity movement which followed also directed the band to look more into African heritage for musical inspiration.

In 1974, a month after boxers Muhammad Ali and George Forman fought in Kinshasa’s Rumble in The Jungle, artistic differences and money squabbles prompted Papa Wemba, along with fellow band members Bozi Boziana and Evoloko, to leave the band and form the successful Isifi Lokole and later Yoka Lokole.

But it was when he put together his band Viva La Musica in 1977 that Papa Wemba really came into his own.

Always innovative he introduced the lokole into the mix, a traditional instrument made out of a hollowed out tree trunk and hit with sticks.

There was more emphasis on his distinctive mournful falsetto vocals which were inspired by his greatest musical influence, his mother, a professional funeral dirge singer.

He was amazingly popular at home, where his house became a hang-out for the cool youth who followed his music and style.

He became the leader of the Sape – short for Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d’Elegance or Society of Ambiance-ists and People of Elegance – whose members, the sapeurs, were known for their elegant style of dress.

“The Sapeur cult promoted high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation of youth across Zaire,” Papa Wemba said.

“When I say well-groomed, well-shaved, well-perfumed, it’s a characteristic that I am insisting on among the young. I don’t care about their education, since education always comes first of all from the family”.

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