With his dynamic vocals and flamboyant personality, Papa Wemba (born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba)
played an essential role in the evolution of Central African music.
Respectfully known as "the King of Rhumba," Wemba successfully fused
African traditions with Western pop and rock influences. A co-founder of
Zaiko Langa Langa in 1970, he went on to international attention as the
leader of Isife Lokole in 1974, and Viva La Musica since 1976.
According to publicity materials for the Womadelaide festival, Wemba
"creates wonderfully infectious music, combining the sophistication of a
Paris nightclub with the vibe of an African open-air concert." While
www.fyiucalgary.com proclaimed that "his voice is gold and his music
makes you want to dance," www.afropop.com declared that he offered "just
the right balance between traditional African music and Western pop."
Born in the Kinshasa region of what was then the Belgian Congo and now
the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wemba was taught that he was
descended from a long line of BaTetela warrior chieftains. His mother, a
professional mourner who sang at funeral wakes, had a profound
influence on his singing. He recalled in a late-'90s interview, "If
mother was still alive, I would be rich in words and rich in melodies.
She was my first teacher and my first audience." Wemba didn't begin
singing until joining the choir of a Roman Catholic Church after the
death of his father, a chief of customs, in 1966. The experience
sharpened his abilities to sing in minor keys. Helping to form Zaiko
Langa Langa in 1969, Wemba remained with the group for four years.
During that time, the group went from playing American R&B to
focusing on traditional Zairian dance music. Their hits included several
Wemba-penned tunes, such as "Pauline," "C'est la Vérité," "Chouchouna,"
and "Liwa Ya Somo."
Leaving Zaiko Langa Langa in 1974, Wemba formed the first bands of his
own, Isife Lokole and Yoka Lokole. Both groups used the lokole, a hollow
tree trunk played with two sticks, as a rhythmic foundation. Moving to
the village of Molokai in the center of Kinshasa's Matonge district in
1977, Wemba formed his most successful group, Viva La Musica. Their
music continued to reflect an authenticity campaign launched by
President Mobutu. Wemba appeared frequently on state-sponsored
television, talking about the influence of traditional Zairian music and
the importance of the authenticity campaign. From the beginning, Viva
La Musica's reputation was built as much on their passion for designer
clothes as their music (www.afropop.org described the band's garb as
"baggy, pleated trousers, hemmed above shiny brogues, and hair clipped
close at the sides"). Fans inspired by the band's style of dress began
dressing similarly and were known as "La Sape," taken from the
expression, "La Société des Ambienceus et ces Personnes D'Élégance."
Viva La Musica was extremely popular among the Congo's youth. Their
first year climaxed with the Kinshasa newspaper Elima naming the band
best orchestra, Wemba best singer, and their single, "Mère Supérieure,"
best song. Over the next three years, the group continued to record hit
singles, including "Moku Nyon Nyon," "Nyekesse Migue'l," and "Cou Cou
Dindon." Determined to capture a European following, Wemba and Viva La
Musica vocalist Rigo Star took a six-month sabbatical from the band in
1979 to join Tabu Ley Rochereau's group, Afrisa International.
Relocating to Paris in the early '80s, Wemba formed a second version of
Viva La Musica. While this group took a more Westernized approach, the
original band continued to perform indigenous-based music. Wemba
explained, "My original group is there for me Zairian fans who come to
hear typical African sounds but when I decided to be a singer with an
international name, I formed another group to appeal to a different
public." Wemba appeared in the late-'80s musical revue Africa Oye!, and
toured as the opening act for Peter Gabriel's Secret World tour in 1993.
He received a best artist Kora award at the first All-African music
awards ceremony three years later. Wemba has continued to fuse the
musical traditions of his homeland and Western pop. His 1995 album
Emotion was produced by Stephen Hague of Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and New
Artist Biography by Craig Harris