After close to five decades of entertaining music lovers, popular Congolese rhumba and soukous legend Papa Wemba has died.
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Papa Wemba, 66, collapsed on Saturday night during the Femua Festival in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He was pronounced dead on Sunday morning.
The musician, whose real name is Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, last staged a concert in Kenya in 2014 during the by-monthly Koroga Festival.
His death is a blow to music fans worldwide. It comes at a time when the Congolese are preparing to bury another music star, Shaba Kahamba.
Wemba, who leaves behind a wife and several children was known as papaya bana ebele, a father of many children. He was the among the founding members of the renowned Viva La Musica band.
Lovers of his music were shocked by the sudden demise of the composer, lead singer and band leader who collapsed between 3.30am and 4am as a result of what a close source from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) termed as seizure.
Speaking to this writer on phone from DRC the source revealed that prior to his concert the musician had suffered a sickness that saw him sink into a coma for two weeks in a hospital in Paris, France.
“He was previously admitted to one of the best hospitals in Paris and upon discharge was advised by doctors to take break from music until further notice, something that he seemed to take for granted,” he added.
Before Papa Wemba’s appearance on stage on Saturday, about two bands prepared the ground for the star attraction. The remarkable thing was that they comprised mainly young musicians who displayed amazing talent.
When Papa Wemba took the stage, he looked tired and detached like a troubled man. But for the next hour, he proceeded to give a solid performance, again backed by a young group of instrumentalists and a sensual troupe of dancers.
At intervals, he would take a rest and allow the energetic band to go on. During these breaks, he would sit by the side of the stage, in a somewhat melancholy mood sipping from a bottle of water.
Moments before he passed on, Wemba a powerful lead singer who specialises in high notes, collapsed in the middle of the scintillating Seben music, leaving many fans in shock and grief.
Recently, Wemba was interviewed by one of the leading television stations in Congo. During the interview, he showcased his musical prowess, proving that he was still a force to reckon with in DRC and the world at large.
His group was scheduled to perform in various concerts across the world to promote some of their latest songs dubbed The Best of Papa Wemba. Wemba becomes the second Congolese music legend after King Kester Emener to lose his life this way.
His body, which is lying in a morgue, awaits transportation to DRC for burial arrangements for a funeral that is expected to attract fans from all walks of life.
Congolese music star Koffi Olomide was among the first artistes to send his condolences
“It is sad that Congo and the world in general has lost such a popular artiste, music composer, mentor like Papa Wemba. Despite being my role model he was also my mentor and owing to this I will travel to Ivory Coast alongside my team to ensure that his body is transported back to DRC soon,” said Koffi, adding that the gap he has left will never be filled.
Wemba was one of the first musicians to join the influential soukous band, Zaiko Langa Langa when it was created in December 1969 in Kinshasa along with such well-known Congolese musicians as Nyoka Longo Jossart, Manuaku Pepe Felly, Evoloko Lay Lay, Bimi Ombale, Teddy Sukami, Zamuangana Enock, Mavuela Simeon, Clan Petrole and others.
In a Congolese musical world dominated at the time by Franco Luambo and his remarkable band TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Afrisa, and by then new musical groups such as Les Grands Maquisards, Le Trio Madjesi, and even younger bands such as Bella-Bella, Thu Zaina and Empire Bakuba, the young and talented Papa Wemba was one of the driving forces that, by 1973, made Zaiko Langa Langa one of the most dominant Congolese groups.
In December 1974, at the pinnacle of their fame he along with Evoloko Lay Lay, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana left Zaiko Langa Langa to establish their own musical ensemble Isifi Lokole, ISIFI being an acronym for “Institut du Savoir Ideologique pour la Formation des Idoles”.
In 1975, he officially adopted the soon-to-be-well-known worldwide name Papa Wemba, the addition of “Papa” (father) an allusion to what were in fact family responsibilities as the first son in his family following the death of his father and mother.
The “feux d’artifice” (fireworks) that was Isifi Lokole would only last a year, with the single “Amazone” (Papa Wemba) as its biggest commercial “hit” record.
In November 1975, Papa Wemba, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana abandoned Evoloko Lay Lay and Isifi Lokole to create the group Yoka Lokole (also known as The Kinshasa’s Wa Fania All-Stars, or Lokole Isifi, or simply Isifi), along with Mbuta Mashakado, another Zaiko Langa Langa “transfusion”.
Like Isifi Lokole, the electronic-instrument-driven Yoka Lokole (or The Kinshasa All-Stars) would not last longer than a year, given the merger of so many talents.
After a year of modest success, controversies within Yoka Lokole over money and prestige (complicated by Wemba’s arrest and brief incarceration in Kinshasa Central prison in December 1976 for the “crime” of being suspected of having had physical intimacy with an influential army general’s daughter) would lead Papa Wemba, then feeling diminished by peers and neglected by the public, to form his own group, Viva la Musica, in February 1977, after a very brief return to Isifi Lokole and Stukas Boys of Lita Bembo, where he played for a few weeks as a guest.
In 1987, he played the male lead role in the successful film La Vie est Belle.