• On Sunday, the Congolese star, renowned Papa Wemba was performing, and I can imagine his fans were looking forward to an electric performance from the well-traveled musician who was known on the continent and in the global sphere.

    Halfway through his third song, however, Wemba dramatically collapsed, and local media later reported he had a seizure, and he died before getting to the hospital.

    The flamboyant singer was performing at Festival des Musiques Urbaines D’Anoumabo (FEMUA).

    Speaking during a press conference, the organizers from FEMUA confirmed Wemba’s death.

    Henry Christmas Mbuta Vokia Wemba’s press spokesman told local station Radio Okapi that at “around 5:10, time of Abidjan, Papa Wemba was announced on stage.

    "He sang the first and the second song. While singing the third song, he collapsed.

    "I was following the concert live on television. I saw the dancers surround Papa Wemba. I thought it was a scene for the concert.

    "But then I see people from the Ivorian Red Cross pop up on stage.

    "Suddenly we cut the signal of the Ivorian television. I tried to talk to call the manager of Papa Wemba abroad, Cornelie.

    "He told me that Papa Wemba fell during a concert.

    "I remember ten minutes later; I was told that he is in intensive care. I call thirty minutes after, Cornelie told me that Papa Wemba passed away."

    Wemba died at 66 doing what he loved, something he had been doing for over forty years.

    Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kibumba in 1949, in what was known then as Belgian Congo, Wemba got his singing voice and talent from his mother who was a professional mourner and would go visiting with her son.

    Known as the ‘King of Congolese Rhumba’ Wemba rose to fame in his twenties and went on to tour with Peter Gabriel and sung with Stevie Wonder.

    Papa’s musical career

    In his early twenties, Wemba was part of the biggest Zairian groups of the 70s, Zaiko Langa Langa. This new group quickly gained an audience many of them being other young people who found the traditional rumba rather slow and a little old-fashioned.

    By 1975, Papa Wemba was famous, and this impelled him to start his own group, Isifi Lokole. Isifi stands for the Institut de Savoir Idealogique pour la Formation des Idoles (Institute of Ideological Knowledge for the Training of Idols) and Lokole refers to a percussion instrument from the Kasai region. No sooner had the group hit one year than it was replaced by another one, Yoka Lokole, whose life span was equally short.

    He formed Viva La Musica group in 1977 which also underwent several changes but remained working closely with Wemba abroad and regionally.

    Wemba was not only known for his music but also for his sense of style which at one point propelled him to create a village, ‘The Village of Molokai’ and set himself as the head man. In his village, residents had to adopt a fashion style centered around the beret. People had to speak in a certain way, walk in a defined way to fit into the group.

    In Europe, Wemba was the ‘Pope’ of SAPE, the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Posers and Elegant People). Enslaved to fashion, Wemba wore European and Japanese designers, and his admirers followed suit. SAPE, although a fashion code, was also used as a means to rebel against the dictatorship of the ’abacost’, a local version of the three-piece suit and virtually an official uniform of the Mobutu regime.

    Wemba will not be forgotten for engaging himself in an illegal immigration scam. He would come with Congolese as part of his dancers and singers only for them to disappear at the end of the tour. For this reason, in 2004, he spent three and a half months in prison from where he claimed to have received a spiritual conversion. When he came out of jail at the time, he preached not the gospel of ‘cool’ clothes but that of the gospel of Christ.

    Between Music and fashion, Wemba also starred in two films, Life Is Beautiful (1987) and Wild Games (1997). Although the films received criticism, they also brought fame and notoriety to the icon for his role in the Sapeur cult, or the Society of Cool and Elegant People.

    Papa Wemba lived his life to the maximum; lived largely and sung his heart out. He will be remembered by many for his emphatic music and his controversial dress code. Rest in Eternal Peace Wemba!


    Image credit: AFP