The Life and Times of Papa Wemba


Eric Elezuo

He was influential, enigmatic and down to earth. He brought life around everyone he came in contact with. He was the absorbing Congolese, popularly known as Papa Wemba.

Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba on June, 14 1949, Papa Wemba’s road to fame and prominence began when he joined the influential music group, Zaiko Langa Langa after it was created in December 1969 in Kinshasa, along with many well known Congolese musicians including Nyoka Longo Jossart and Bimi Ombale, among others. He remained with the group for four years. This was followed by his success as a founding member both of Isifi Lokole and then Yoka Lokole. But Wemba gained international success and status with his band Viva La Musica, especially after he took them to Paris, France in the early 1980s, while mixing into the music an “eclectic sound that was influenced by western popular music reflecting a European flavor and style.

He developed a style of music called rhumba (later known as soukous), and was sometimes dubbed the King of Rhumba Rock. He was one of Africa’s most popular musicians, prominent in world music, and a fashion icon who popularized the Sapeur look and style through his musical group, Viva la Musica.

Paris, FRANCE:  Congolese singer Papa Wemba performs during a concert at the New Morning, 15 February 2006 in Paris.   AFP PHOTO PIERRE VERDY  (Photo credit should read PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)
Paris, FRANCE: Congolese singer Papa Wemba performs during a concert at the New Morning, 15 February 2006 in Paris. AFP PHOTO PIERRE VERDY (Photo credit should read PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)


Papa Wemba helped contribute to the success of Zaiko Langa Langa so that, by 1973, it was one of the more successful Congolese groups with one of the busiest touring schedules. Soon its shows and concerts featured a string of their popular hits, including many that were written by Wemba. The latter included “Pauline,” “C’est La Vérité,” “Chouchouna,” and “Liwa Ya Somo.”

Zaiko Langa Langa had gained a strong and popular following even in a Congolese musical world dominated at the time by various musical acts including Franco Luambo and his band TPOK Jazz, or Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Afrisa, and (at the time) new musical acts such as Bella-Bella and Empire Bakuba.


In December 1974, at the pinnacle of their fame, and just a month after the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Papa Wemba, along with Evoloko Lay Lay, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana (who had joined the group a year earlier), left Zaiko Langa Langa to establish their own musical ensemble Isifi Lokole.

Wemba later claimed that ISIFI was an acronym for “Institut du Savoir Ideologique pour la Formation des Idoles,” a claim that has still not been given total credence. In July 1975, he officially adopted the soon-to-be-well-known-worldwide name Papa Wemba. The “Papa” (father) part of his name was added as an allusion to the demanding family responsibilities that Wemba assumed at very young age. This was because Wemba was the first son in a family where both parents were now deceased: Wemba’s father in 1966, followed by his mother seven years later in 1973. Isifi Lokole would only last a year together as a group, with the single “Amazone” (a Wemba composition) as its biggest commercial “hit” record.


In November 1975, Papa Wemba, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana abandoned Isifi Lokole to create the group Yoka Lokole (also known as The Kinshasa’s Wa Fania All-Stars). Yoka Lokole wasn’t as popular as Isifi Lokole, but contributed to the African pop music wave with their hit songs including “Matembele Bangui”, “Lisuma ya Zazu” (Papa Wemba), “Mavuela Sala Keba”, and “Bana Kin” (Mavuela Somo).

Like Isifi Lokole, the electronic-instrument-driven Yoka Lokole would not last much longer than a year. The difficultly was in keeping the musicians together long enough to establish a consistent sound and style. The constant turnover was attributed to the merger of so many big-name talents in the band’s lineup. 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). The band continued to tour without Papa Wemba. For Wemba this was a kind of betrayal that motivated him to, singlehandedly, form his own group in February 1977, called Viva la Musica.

Congo's most famous musician Papa Wemba during a concert in Kinshasa June 26, 2004 REUTERS/ David Lewis/Files
Congo’s most famous musician Papa Wemba during a concert in Kinshasa June 26, 2004 REUTERS/ David Lewis/Files

At his home in the Matonge neighborhood of Kinshasa, Papa Wemba structured Viva la Musica around young talented artists including the singers Kisangani Esperant, Jadot le Cambodgien, Pepe Bipoli and Petit Aziza, and various guitarists such as Rigo Star, Syriana, and Bongo Wende. The group had nearly instantaneous success with hit songs that included “Mere Superieure,” “Mabele Mokonzi”, “Bokulaka,” “Princesse ya Sinza”, and others. As time went by, it was revealed that Antoine Agbepa (currently known as Koffi Olomide), whose friends were calling “Cheri O”, was the unknown writer of most of the group’s hit songs. An old Kinshasa anecdote says that a college student then-named Agbepa was such an impressive songwriter that one day in 1977, Papa Wemba exclaimed, “Ooh! l’homme idee” (Oh! the idea-man!), thereby on-the-spot renaming the impressive young singer-songwriter Koffi Olomide – and the name stuck.

At the height of his success in 1977, Papa Wemba established a kind of commune for musicians. To accomplish this, he used his family home (on Kanda-Kanda street) as a place for Matonge youths to gather “à la mode” (i.e., to be cool). It was named “Village Molokai.” Papa Wemba assumed the moniker “Chef Coutumier” (Chief) of the Village of Molokai. That village in the heart of Matonge, included the following streets whose first letters were used to form the acronym: M-O-LO-KA-I (Masimanimba-Oshwe-LOkolama-KAnda-kanda-Inzia).

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wemba and his group started traveling to Paris, believing there was a potentially wider audience for the music he had been helping to create during the preceding decade.

“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.” Says Craig Harris, Wemba biographer

With the wave of African emigration to Europe in the 1990s, Wemba maintained one group in Kinshasa (called at times “Nouvelle Ecriture”, “Nouvel Ecrita”, and then again “Viva la Musica”) and another one in Paris (“Nouvelle Generation,” “La Cour des Grands,” and now “Viva Tendance”). He also consistently maintained a high profile in world music with the hits “L’Esclave” (1986), “Le Voyageur, Maria Valencia” (1992), “Foridoles, Dixieme Commandement” (1994), “Emotion” (1995), “Pole Position” (1996), “Bakala dia Kuba” (2001), and “Somo Trop” (2003). In 1979, Papa Wemba became the unofficial leader of the Sapeur (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d’Élégance, roughly translated as “the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People,” or SAPE) which he promoted as a youth subculture. Wemba said:

“The Sapeur cult promoted high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress, to a whole generation of youth across Zaire. When I say well groomed, well shaved, well perfumed, it’s a Characteristic that I am insisting on among the young. I don’t care about their education, since education always comes first of all from the family.”

On February 18 2003, suspected of being involved in a network that has allegedly smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) into Europe, Papa Wemba was arrested at his home in Paris.

He was eventually found guilty at some level in June 2003 and spent three and a half months in prison, an experience that, on his release after a €30,000 bail was posted, he declared, had 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 album Somo Trop (released in October 2003). On the song “Numéro d’écrou”, he recalled the day “God” paid a visit to his cell.

Wemba was also known as an actor. In 1987, he played the male lead role in the successful Zairean (Congolese) film La Vie est Belle by Belgian director Benoît Lamy and Congolese producer-director Ngangura Mweze. In 2012, he had a cameo role in the Belgian drama film Kinshasa Kids.

Priyan Weerappuli, leader of the Sri Lankan group Pahan Silu, referred to Wemba as being among his greatest musical influences. Weerappuli claims that he was first introduced to Wemba’s music in 2004 and was “deeply inspired by the free rhythms demonstrated by Wemba’s Soukous style” and, from that point, “began experimenting with these rhythms in his own compositions.”

Wemba died at the age of 66 after collapsing on stage in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, during the FEMUA urban music festival on 24 April 2016. Ever since his death, condolences have been pouring in from every sector of human endeavour, eulogizing the man who put Africa in the world music map, using his immediate local content, especially language and instruments. Among those who had paid their respects is the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila. It is believed that there are likely to be large events paying homage in the coming days unend.

Congolese Culture Minister, Baudouin Banza Mukalay, called his death a “great loss for the country and all of Africa”, while Kinshasa rapper, Youssoupha, mourned the band leader in French tweet, saying, “Like my community, I am devastated by the death of Papa Wemba. He was the icon of our culture, of our lifestyle. This is a huge loss.”

As the African continent prepares to give Papa Wemba a befitting funeral, we at The Boss wish him a healthy rest in the bosom of our Lord.

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