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 after 1976.
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 Central African 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 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. 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 were 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."
By the late '70s, 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 Africa Music Awards ceremony three years later. Wemba 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 Order fame. He continued to record and perform regularly, although a brief prison stay in the early 2000s (he was arrested for his suspected involvement in a ring smuggling immigrants into Europe) affected both his outlook and the theme of his recordings, including Somo Trop from 2003. Wemba died in 2016 at the age of 66, after being stricken while on-stage in Ivory Coast. ~ Craig Harris