Papa Wemba’s rich legacy of music, pop culture
He would have been 70 this year and would have celebrated 50 years of his musical career, which kicked off in 1969 upon the foundation of Zaiko Langa-Langa, one of the greatest bands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, aka Papa Wemba, had not lived to see these […]
He would have been 70 this year and would have celebrated 50 years of his musical career, which kicked off in 1969 upon the foundation of Zaiko Langa-Langa, one of the greatest bands of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, aka Papa Wemba, had not lived to see these milestones because he passed away on 24 April 2016 on stage in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d’Ivoire.
It will take thousands of pages to document his legacy, which is made not only of fine music he intelligently composed and played so well, but also of a set of practices, beliefs and tastes of life he inculcated on about four generations of the Congolese people.
Right from “MT la Verite”, his first song released in 1970 with Zaiko Langa-Langa to his last recorded album “Maitre d’Ecole”, the man nicknamed Jules Presley excelled as a singer, a performer, a storyteller and a social influencer.
Born on 14 June 1949 in Lubefu, a small town in the troubled Kasai Province, the man nicknamed Jules Presley developed his music talent in the catholic parish of Saint Joseph located near his family home in the bustling suburb of Matonge in the capital Kinshasa.
Music commentators likened his fine voice to that of a nightingale (rossignol in French), earning him a nickname of Petit Rossi. Melancholic as ever, this voice told thousand stories that sweetened minds, comforted broken hearts, repaired broken relationships and changed lives for the best.
Petit Rossi was a worldwide performer, who electrified the stage and sent the chill down his fans’ spine worldwide, from Africa to Europe, America and Asia.
Generations of Congolese will be grateful to the late Papa Wemba for many years to come because he influenced their lives in many ways. First, he taught people how to dress up in a fashionable way, reinforcing the bond, and sometimes the obsession, for designer clothes and expensive brands in this vast, conflict-hit Central African nation of 80 million people.
Since the late 70s, Papa Wemba’s attachment to designer clothes was no secret to anyone in the DRC and across Africa and Europe. He was always dressed up in big brands of international fashion such as Giorgio Armani, Pierre Balmain, Thierry Muggler, Jean Paul Gaulthier, Gianni Versace, Valentino, JM Weston, Salvatore Feragamo and Frankie Morello, among others.
Sometimes, fans came to Petit Rossi’s shows, not to really to listen to his music or see him perform, but to see how he will be dressed up.
Apart from the love for expensive clothes and dressing up differently from other nations, he also launched a desperate plea to all the cool guys out there to be surrounded by a good looking girl (wife or girlfriend), to own a beautiful house and a nice car.
Some of Papa Wemba’s social teachings did not go down well with conservative families who thought that he was inciting the youth to delinquency. However, in the end many came to acknowledge that the social revolution was unstoppable and should be therefore tolerated.
Four years and six months after his passing away, Papa Wemba’s rich legacy of music and popular culture remains stuck not only in the bodies and souls of Congolese people, but also among his fans worldwide, like blood in the human veins and arteries.
Music, fashion and cool stuff will not be the same again because there was only one Papa Wemba and there will be no more Papa Wemba. Bearing in mind that an artist does not die, his fans continue to celebrate his life through his music and all the good things he taught them when he was alive.
Papa Wemba, the King of Rumba-rock, is gone forever but he will not be forgotten.
Congolese singer Papa Wemba. Photo by Pierre Verdy