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African Legends

Papa Wemba

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 17, 2006

Papa Wemba has always been a larger-than-life figure, both in his music and his personality.

When, in 2004, the Congolese legend was convicted of transporting some 200 individuals into France illegally over a period of time—each person paid $4,000 for the privilege of being a “member” of his band—it was shocking yet not all that surprising to his followers that Wemba attempted to pull the stunt. (Most of his sentence was suspended.)

But so much for his police record—it’s his music that made him the colossus that he is. Born Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in Kasai, Congo in 1949, the future Wemba’s family moved to Kinshasa when he was a child, and he began singing in church. He took in the great African artists of the day as well as Western rock and R&B, and became a front-line member of the renowned Zaiko Langa Langa, formed in 1969. Wemba presided over the shift from the Cuban-influenced rumba to the faster-paced soukous and he became a star in his own right by the mid-’70s, known as much for his sartorial daring as his exciting stage presence and dynamic vocal style.

In 1974 Wemba formed Viva La Musica, by all accounts one of the most exciting Congolese bands of its day. But by the late ’80s he began to augment his work with the group by embarking on a solo career. He relocated to Paris, where he formed a new band that thrilled his new European and American fans while leaving some of his Congolese admirers cold. As he veered away from the more purist soukous approach into new territory, Wemba continued to work both with Viva La Musica and under his own name. He satisfied both factions by incorporating electronics and contemporary dance rhythms into his solo recordings while sticking closer to the roots of soukous with the group.

Recommended Recordings

1977-1997 (Stern’s Africa) (with Viva La Musica)
Papa Wemba (EMI)
Emotion (RealWorld)