Even in death, musician, rabble-rouser and sometime actor Papa Wemba personifies the term “larger than life”. The forever dapper performer was the unofficial father figure for the Congolese movement La Sape, colloquially known as the society of atmosphere-settlers and elegant people.
Its followers, the Sapeurs, who were outspoken fashion rebels of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), imbibed Wemba’s philosophy and guiding light, which promoted “high standards of personal cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress”.
The fact that Wemba collapsed on stage and died soon after, on April 24, says something of his largesse, and, ironically, of his physical fitness. His dancers did not notice that he had bowed out, and continued their routine for a few seconds before noticing his absence.
He went out exactly as he would have scripted it, peacocking about and surrounded by a horde, three songs in at Abidjan’s Urban Musical Festival, the first cultural event in the Côte d’Ivoire since an attack at the country’s beach resort Grand-Bassam, which left 19 people dead.
The DRC’s cultural minister Baudouin Banza Mukalay called Wemba a self-made man, an honour that would doubtlessly have pleased the controversial musician.
Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba on June 14 1949 in what was then the Belgian Congo (now the DRC), Wemba inherited his love for music from his adoptive mother, a professional mourner who sang at funerals.
Soaking in the American influence of the 1960s, he acquired the stage name Jules Presley in his teens.
In 1969, Wemba joined the popular soukous band Zaiko Langa Langa – which boasted a signature sound that was a mixture of rock, Afro-Cuban rhythm and Congolese traditional song – and soon emerged as something of a bankable rumba star.
In 1977, Wemba founded Viva La Musica, which began as a soukous band but grew into a world music act and, in many ways, was Wemba’s ticket to the rest of the world..
Wemba settled in Europe, became a bona fide global star and a key defining figure of world music. His fortunes were tied to Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label, until 1999.
In 2004 Wemba walked away seemingly unscathed from accusations of trafficking humans and using his band as a smokescreen.
He leaves a strong legacy and more than 40 well-loved albums.