Papa Wemba, king of rumba, duke of dandies

17th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 16 (AFP) - Papa Wemba, convicted of smuggling immigrants into France by disguising them as members of his band, is king of the rumba back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - and also a tribute to tailoring at its most bizarre.

PARIS, Nov 16 (AFP) - Papa Wemba, convicted of smuggling immigrants into France by disguising them as members of his band, is king of the rumba back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - and also a tribute to tailoring at its most bizarre.

Wemba, who walked free because he has already served four months, is one of the biggest stars of African music.

A court in the Paris suburb Bobigny handed down a 30-month term with 26 months suspended after convicting the 55-year-old musician of "assistance to the illegal entry or residence of foreigners." It also fined him EUR 10,000 (USD 13,000).

The superstar is a luminary of the "Society of Dandies and Trendy People" (Société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes), a movement he helped to set up in the 1970s when that vast troubled African state he hails from was called Zaire.

The members of this colourful club have one big ambition - to outdo each other in the extravagance of their sartorial habits.

Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in 1949 in the Kasai River region of what was then the Belgian Congo, Papa Wemba inherited his love of song from his mother, who was professional wailing woman at funerals.

Wemba's father wanted his son to become a lawyer, but in vain.

Their offspring began his vocal career with religious chorals in which he developed his trademark high range voice. He made his debut in the capital Kinshasa at the end of the 1960s.

Like all his generation he was strongly influenced by American and British pop culture and took the stage name Jules Presley.

In 1969 he helped found Zaiko Langa Langa, a Zaire pop group that was to achieve cult status in the 1970s, especially with its rediscovery of that venerable Latin American dance the rumba, once the rage of the 1940s, reviving it with a combination of Afro-Cuban rhythm and Congolese song, and introducing rock rhythms and electronic sounds.

Papa Wemba set up his own group Viva La Musica in 1977 and became a star of central Africa. He also created the village of Molokai near Kinshasa, proclaiming himself its folklorist-in-chief and upholder of hallowed tradition.

With the emergence of world music in the 1980s, European producers began eyeing Wemba, and he appeared in France with increasing regularity, while in his home country his music became an expression of the nation's youth, although he avoided any political role.

Wemba settled in France in 1986 at a time when his fame stretched as far afield as Japan, dazzled by this African dandy who got the world's top couturiers to dress him up.

Now he was reaching a much wider public, mainly due to a world music album produced by France's Martin Meissonnier in 1988, which skilfully blended African and western sounds.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Wemba linked up with Peter Gabriel, the former singer with Genesis who had launched his own label RealWorld.

Papa Wemba produced three discs for RealWorld targeting a western public, parallel to other productions aimed more at African audiences.

But he did not match the success of other African stars emerging on the European and North American scenes, such as Senegal's Youssou N'Dour.

Papa Wemba was reputedly hard to handle, and the success of earlier eluded him after he broke with the RealWorld label in 1999.

But this father of six, supported by a host of fans during his Paris trial, remains a star of Africa.

Last June June he was received rapturously by a vast crowd audience when returned to Kinshasa after 18 months' absence.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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