Papa Wemba leaves in style

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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Odd drop in how Covid-19 numbers grow

As the country hunkers down for a second week of lockdown, how reliable is the data available and will it enable a sound decision for whether South Africans can leave their homes on April 16?

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders