Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Papa Wemba

Papa Wemba in Kinshasa, 9 September 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Papa Wemba was revered by fashion-conscious men in Kinshasa

Band leader Papa Wemba will be remembered for a music style that conquered Africa, and a sense of fashion that inspired a generation of dandies.

He died aged 66 after collapsing on a busy stage behind his dancers at a late-night concert in Ivory Coast.

So ended the life of a man who helped take African pop to a global audience over more than four decades that saw spells of prison too.

"He was the icon of our culture, of our lifestyle," tweeted Kinshasa rapper Youssoupha. "This is a huge loss."

Wailer's son

He was born Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in June 1949 in Lubefu, in what was then the Belgian Congo (now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo).

According to French broadcaster RFI (in French), he got his nickname Papa because he was his mother's eldest child. He also took the name Jules Presley later in life.

His love of song can be attributed to his mother, who was a professional "wailing woman" at funerals, AFP news agency notes in its obituary.

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Media captionWatch a clip from Papa Wemba's 2015 music video D'adoration

His father wanted him to be a journalist or lawyer, RFI writes, but, after developing his trademark high-range voice in religious choirs, he made his debut in the capital Kinshasa at the end of the 1960s.

Mixing traditional African music with Western rock, he and his successive bands - Zaiko Langa Langa, Isifi and Viva La Musica - enjoyed hit after hit, including L'Esclave and Le Voyageur.

Shaping Congolese music in the 1970s and 1980s, he made soukous the most popular sound across Africa, and attracted international music figures like Peter Gabriel.

"I do not know if this is a loss for African music because the music does not die," said Eric Didia, a promoter of Congolese music in Ivory Coast and friend of Wemba who was at the morgue where his body was taken.

"People can listen to Papa Wemba songs in 50 years, in 100 years," he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Wemba was also an actor, appearing in two films, Life Is Beautiful (1987) and Wild Games (1997).

Migrant smuggler

In 2004, Wemba was convicted of people-smuggling in France and spent three months in prison.

He was found to have helped Congolese immigrants illegally obtain visas by passing them off as musicians working with him on European shows.

A Belgian court convicted him of the same crime in 2012, handing down a fine of 22,000 euros (£17,143; $24,690) and a suspended prison sentence of 15 months.

Wemba had also been briefly imprisoned in Kinshasa in 1976 on suspicion of having a relationship with the daughter of a general from President Mobutu Sese Seko's army.

Fashion guru

In Kinshasa, Papa Wemba was known for his taste in clothing and headed an organisation called the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People, or sapeurs.

Their stylish suits and fedora hats brought a touch of glamour to Central African countries marked by poverty.

Hours after the official confirmation of his death, hundreds gathered in Matonge, his neighbourhood in Kinshasa, to pay homage.

"He is our papa," Eddy Kilonda, a young man on the verge of tears, told Reuters.

"He was not only a musician. He taught us to dress properly, to be stylish."

Wemba married his wife Marie-Rose Luzolo in 1970 and they had six children

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