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QONDILE KHEDAMA: Papa Wemba got his wish

OPINION

April 24th would have marked the 4th year since death of one of the icons of African music, Papa Wemba. Wemba had a notable impact among those who followed his music career. He provoked an outpouring of heartfelt tributes and commentaries testifying to the achievements and equally intriguing life worth commemorating.

On the fatal day of 2016 upon receiving news of the passing of King of rumba, Wemba­dio Pene Kikumba - aka Papa Wemba - I could only reminisce of and think about the continent’s acclaimed collaboration song _So Why, a _title of the song by the finest artists Africa could ever produce Youssou Ndour, the late Jabu Khanyile and Papa Wemba himself. The flamboyant Wemba was described as rebellious by those who worked closely with him, prolific, a style icon, at times notorious and always innovative and a pioneer of modern Congolese soukous music.

The euphoria that Papa Wemba and his music created was a real antidote to the crisis for a troubled youth in the continent. However, the singer was still to refuse to play a political role through his songs, even if he did so unwittingly - this is becoming a common phenomena among celebrities in the African continent.

For over two decades, Mobutu Seseko’s drive for “authenticity” meant that Zairians were forbidden from using Christian names, bleaching their skin and straightening their hair, or even playing most kinds of foreign music on the radio.

Rather than employing the term Mr or Mrs, Zairians were enjoined to address each other as Citizen. And in the place of the Western business suit, Mobutu imposed his own creation, a two-piece outfit of pants and a tunic, patterned after the so-called Mao suits worn in China.

These clothes, designed to be worn with a foulard at the neck, were dubbed “abacost,” a contraction of “a bas le costume,” or down with the suit. Wemba who was also once king of La Sape (Society of ambience makers and Elegant People) was very clear about how he wanted to be remembered, according to the sleeve notes from his 1995 album.

It was in the Southern Congo (Zaire from 1971 to 1997 and then Democratic Republic of the Congo), in the Kasai River region, that Papa Wemba was born in 1949. His real name was Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, but the child was nicknamed Papa because he was his mother’s eldest son.

His mother was a professional mourner, an essential, traditional part of all funereal vigils and wakes. By regularly taking her son with her, she introduced him to music and song, which very quickly became a passion for the child.

In 1977, Papa Wemba formed Viva La Musica, a group of about 15 musicians, which after numerous changes still exists today, 20 years later. In the early ’80s, Papa Wemba travelled more frequently to France, which has a large Zairian community.

Despite the many recording studios in Kinshasa, the facilities and equipment quality were infinitely superior in Europe. That was why his producer sent him to France in 1982.

In Europe, Papa Wemba was not just a singer. He was also the prince, the “pope” of Sape, the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Posers and Elegant People). Started in the Congo in the late 70s, the movement flourished in Zaire and especially with Zairian-Congolese exiled abroad, and in particular in France, Sape was initially a dress thing, based on exaggerated, flamboy­ant elegance.

A slave to fashion, Papa Wemba was a fashion leader and the major European and Japanese designers were no strangers to him. Young men rushed to become clothes conscious dandies and carefully followed the special codes of Sape, from their shoes to their hairstyles. A form of anti-poverty and anti-depression rebellion, Sape was also a way of fighting against the dictatorship of the “abacost,” a local version of the three-piece suit and virtu­ally an official uniform of the Mobutu regime.

With the Senegalese artiste Youssou N’dour, he received the first African Music Prize in the best artiste category. Then Papa Wemba got together again with his legendary group Viva La Musica for a new album Pole Position, which came out in early 1996. During his recent international tours Papa Wemba was backed by another more mixed group with much wider musical experience. But he then decided to return to his African fans. Towards the end of the year, he brought out the Wake Up album with another soukouss star Koffi Olomide.

A huge musical and commercial coup, the album’s success spread to Europe. On October 9 in La Cigale (Paris), he took the stage again on behalf of the Red Cross. The profits from the show were to finance projects on the African continent and in particular the fight against anti-personnel mines. This concert also marked the launch of the So Why campaign designed to encourage inter-ethnic tolerance.

This campaign, among other things, led to the release of a record by Papa Wemba and Youssou N’dour a few months later.

Papa Wemba spent three and a half months in prison, an experience which on his release, he declared had a profound psychological effect on him. The singer claimed to have undergone a spiritual conversion in jail and even recounted this episode on his new album, Somo trop (released in October 2003).

On the song Numéro d’écrou, Papa Wemba recalled the day God paid a visit to his cell. After this road to Damascus experience, a born-again Papa Wemba returned to the stage, taking Parisian venue Le Zénith by storm on 25 October 2003 in the company of the Tendance orchestra. Democratic Republic of Congo’s rumba king Papa Wemba was posthumously awarded one of his country’s highest honours on Monday, a week after he collapsed on stage and died aged 66.

At a ceremony in the national parliament in Kinshasa, where Papa Wemba’s body lay in state, Congo’s President Joseph Kabila made the singer a grand officer of the Order of National Heroes Kabila-Lumumba for “the merits, the loyal and eminent services rendered to the Congolese”.

Qondile Khedama is a communications practitioner and social commentator. He is head of communications in the Mangaung metro. He writes in his personal capacity.