Sunday, September 27, 2020

“The day Papa Wemba died”

This was the brief tribute by Folek Meki when he heard about the death of Madilu System last August. The Congolese singer had succumbed to diabetes at the age of fifty seven.

Now in the same month a year later, we hear about the death of Papa Wemba. Once again, news of the demise of this legendary composer and singer is yet to reach many villages. The first and only time I saw Papa Wemba live was in Kinshasa two years ago. It was evident on our arrival that once upon a time, this was a modern city. Its decay and stagnation now told a story of misery and suffering. The rutted roads, dilapidated buildings and crumbling infrastructure were an allegorical tapestry of a country that had collapsed.
Indeed, as the writer Maganda Thierry Nlandu had observed, Kinshasa is a city that had fallen apart. However, on my first day this dead city was a kaleidoscope of colour and pulsating energy as the country braced itself for the first democratic elections in forty years. Kinshasa was a city I had always longed to visit. Forget Paris, London, New York, Rio or all the other great metropolis of the world, this was the place I had dreamt about. And long before it was Congo, Zaire was the country always top of my itinerary if only because I had been regaled with amazing tales about this part of the world. Long before Mobutu fled from his village palace in Gbadolite, into exile and eventual death in Morocco this place held me in thrall. As we weaved through the dense traffic which seemed to observe no rules, I was struck by the density of the largest mass of humanity I had ever seen. These were ordinary people going about their daily business. Selling, eating, relaxing, courting, drinking.
But more than anything else, all the way from Ndjili airport to the Intercontinental hotel, it seemed everyone was selling something. This was Nlandu’s economy of resistance which sustains the city’s millions of poor and deprived, to whom as far as they are concerned, the state exists only to loot. Finally, I was in Kinshasa and in Congo, the magical country of my dreams to whom fate and the vanity and greed of a single man had dealt such a cruel hand.

As a somewhat intrepid traveller, whenever I arrive in a new place, I embark on a journey of local discovery. I leave the hotel, get a cab and go to all the places I have read about. I patronise the watering holes and interact with the populace. For me Kinshasa held no trepidation. In a city of about seven million people, almost all of them sharing my skin pigmentation, what fear could I have.
As part of the SADC election observer team, my private pilgrimage was to explore the haunts of the musicians I had only either read about or heard on recordings. Kinshasa was their city. Finally I was in the heart of the music. A casual chat with one of the hotel porters on the second day of our arrival revealed word that Papa Wemba would be playing at a club frequented by the expatriate community and other foreign types that very evening.

Eager to sample the night life I tried to coax my colleagues to come along. Only one obliged. Our interpreter called a reliable cab and off we went to a club cum restaurant in the neighbourhood of Gombe.

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Before his appearance, about two bands warmed up the stage for the star attraction. The remarkable thing was that they comprised mainly young musicians who displayed amazing talent. For a person accustomed to music in which the artistes are unable to show proficiency in any musical instrument and simply lip synch to pre recorded tapes, this was live music at its best. Then Papa Wemba came on. He looked tired and detached, like a man troubled. But for the next hour he proceeded to give a solid performance, again backed by a young group of instrumentalists and a sensual troupe of dancers. At intervals he would take a rest and allow the energetic band to jam. Seated by the side of the stage, in somewhat melancholic mood, dressed in some bizarre outfit of a European nobleman of the middle ages, sipping from a bottle of water and just a few feet from where I stood was one of the legends of Congolese music. The son of a professional female mourner, Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba was born 1949 in Kasai Province. Early in his musical career his contemporaries gave him the moniker ‘Presley’ due to his love of American music. However in the 1971 Zaire underwent huge social change when Mobutu introduced his philosophy of ‘authenticite’ . At the core of the philosophy was the call for all Zaireans to return to an identity free from Western influences. This entailed the shedding of all European names and modes of dress. Presley gave way to Papa Wemba. At the artistic level, ‘authenticite’ meant the banning on state radio and in clubs, of western music As a result of these radical measures, Congolese music flourished. The music of the country has a long history. It took off following the Second World War as multitudes of Africans returned from the war and the rural peasantry grativated to the urban centres in search of jobs and a better standard of living. The magnet attracting this wave of human migration was the capital city, then known as Leopoldville. It would acquire a reputation as a ‘a town of joy’. Music historian Graeme Ewens writes that the first full time outfit was Africa Jazz led by Joseph ‘Grand Kalle’ Kabasele. Formed in 1953 it was this group that provided tuition for a fifteen year old guitar prodigy called Luambo Makiadi, later to achieve international fame. In a country of many ethnic groups, the language which evolved into the glue that held this vast new nation together was Lingala. A trading language along the Congo River, it became the language of choice of all musicians. Lingala is said to possess a certain tonal quality that gives a rhythmic and poetic expression of any emotion. It is a language that almost sings itself. This explains the smooth and honey dripping vocal delivery of Congolese singers. In the meantime Franco led a breakaway faction from Africa Jazz and put together Orchestre Kinois Jazz(OK Jazz). By the seventies due to the invention of larger capacity discs that provided extended playing time, the music changed in emphasis, placing more accent on what is known as the seben. Described as the instrumental section when the rumba slows, singers stand back and multiple guitars get to work on the backing singers, it is a characteristic that popularised Congolese music beyond its borders. Franco and OK Jazz became the foremost exponents of this genre. With Franco gone, Africa Jazz soon disbanded and out of its ashes rose Tabu Ley, fronting an ensemble called Orchestre Afrisa International which became the main rival to OK Jazz. The new group gained an even greater appreciation after recruiting a young female singer called Mbilia Bel. An on and off lover, wife and mother to Tabu Ley’s child she would go onto to launch a solo career and become a star in her own right. Back at the Intercontinental hotel I asked around and was told Mbilia Bel was a regular patron. I never got to see her. The area he lived in was said to be a stronghold of Etienne Tshisekedi, Mobutu’s long time rival who was playing brinkmanship as the elections drew closer. Boasting a big following in Kinshasa he ultimately opted to boycott the polls we had come to observe. Frankly I could not be bothered. My main interest was finding my Congolese singers. Our search for Tabu Ley who was now a big shot politician did not bear fruit. He was said to be out of town, busy with political campaigns. When we drove over to where Sam Mangwana used to live in Ngiri- Ngiri commune, people seemed surprised we didn’t know he had left long ago. Some said he was in Angola. Others pointed to the Ivory Coast. It was a testimony to the itinerant spirit of the man. Initially with Afrisa, Mangwana did the unthinkable when at the height of a great rivalry between the two bands, he defected to OK Jazz. Eventually he returned to Afrisa, but departed soon after, sailing down the west coast where he started a stellar career with his new band, The African All Stars. Mangwana set up base in Abidjan from where he churned out hit after hit, including the all time favourite Maria Tebbo. In the years following, like the troubadour of old, he would move all over the continent.

Congolese music had always been innovative and open to new influences. In the ‘authenticite’ climate that extolled the virtue of everything local, the early seventies saw the birth of a new sound. For many years, the ingredients of Zairian music were elaborate vocals, horn section and rhythm instruments. The new style eschewed the wind instruments, minimised the lush vocal build up, quickened the pace and introduced animation or rapping. Dance floors all over the continent went up in flames at the sound of the sensuous rhythms of this guitar driven music. At the forefront of the new format was a group called Zaiko Langa Langa which went on to enjoy massive popularity. Their new sound, called soukous evolved into what we came to know as kwasa kwasa. It was a sound which would be adopted all over the continent as many countries came up with their own versions. The first full time kwasa kwasa group to take up residency in Botswana was Lubumbashi Stars who originated from Zaire. A figure who captured the imagination of a many a reveller was a dancer known as Lengos. The local pioneer of the genre was the guitarist and singer Alfredo Mos, who after being tutored by the late Congolese Lawi Somana, exploded on the scene with Africa Sounds. Comprising Paki Molotsi on bass, Thabo Motsumi on rhythm, Tumelo Mafoko on keyboards, Suzuki Tembo on drums and animators, Yombe Chisulu, and the inimitable Charlie Musonda, the group, in 1999, went on to record Leineng la Lorato, their third album and the best kwasa kwasa recording ever produced in Botswana. The band attracted a loyal fan base, including yours truly, to the Bodiba Country Club. Africa Sounds followed Nata Capricon originally from Tanzania and a local boy Franco who had studied music in the army. The band that set the template for all the aforementioned groups was of course Zaiko Langa Langa, in whose line up was Papa Wemba. Zaiko would later split into many formations. Papa Wemba left to form Viva La Musica which had a certain Kofi Olomide in its ranks as a songwriter. Upon pursuing a solo career, Olomide would become one of the most popular singers on the continent and the diaspora. To the soundtrack of Zaiko, blasting across the river from Radio Televisione Congo in Brazzaville, we took a drive to Kofi’s ultra luxurious compound. He was not in. But he had been in Botswana some five years ago at the Blue Tree in front of the largest crowd for a live show ever seen in the country. Two AK 47 wielding guards told us he was away on tour in Belgium. In her book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz which traces the fall of Mobutu, Michela Wrong narrates the frantic final moments of the dictatorship. Some of the most dramatic episodes took place at my base the Intercontinental. In the gripping documentary Mobutu, The King of Zaire’, Pierre Janssen, son in law of the president said as a white man he never believed in superstition. However he had to evaluate his beliefs towards the end when frightening things were happening in the family. There were a lot of deaths, including the president’s two sons. He heard whispers that Mobutu had managed to become powerful because he used strong medicine for which payment could only be the death of ones’ children and ultimately loss of power. Former information minister Sakonsi Iyongo also testified that Mobutu used the most powerful sorcerers in the world. He claimed to have personally seen the president drinking a glass full of human blood. As Mobutu’s power ebbed away, so did the golden years of Congolese music. In 1989 the original baobab Franco died from AIDS. Amidst the socio-economic and political turmoil, night clubs shut down. Some became churches, including Franco’s old club adjacent to the national stadium, and close to where the latest sensation Werrason rehearses to audiences of up to two thousand fans. As part of my exploration of Kinshasa I posed for pictures at Franco’s club, now a church before proceeding to catch Werrason in rehearsal. A few days before, presidential hopeful, Jean Pierre Bemba’s supporters had burnt down part of the place in retaliation for the singer’s apparent support for his rival Joseph Kabila. I also had the opportunity to pass by the late Pepe Kalle’s house. I had seen the elephantine singer back in 1992 when he performed at the University of Botswana. Pepe Kalle’s was not the only death. As Zaire died along with Mobutu, many of the old bands sank into obscurity and if the musicians did not succumb to mysterious long illnesses, they relocated to other parts of Africa or Europe. Paris supplanted Kinshasa as the new centre of music defined by a new sound of fast paced party music at whose forefront were the likes of Kanda Bongo Man and Diblo Dibala of Loketo. Papa Wemba also took flight and settled in Europe where he became one of the pioneers of a new genre called world music with his group Molokai International. Appearances at prestigious events such as WOMAD followed. Papa Wemba had finally arrived on the international scene. Perhaps the hit best known to local fans is In Your Eyes, his 1998 collaboration with Peter Gabriel. The singer’s rationale for embracing world music was that ‘I am a star in Zaire, a star in Africa. I decided to slam the door on Zaire because I don’t want to play for Zaireans only but to play music for all humanity’.

Between music, Papa Wemba also starred in two films which received critical acclaim. But he also achieved both fame and notoriety for his role in the Sapeur cult, or the Society of Cool and Elegant People. In a blatant rejection of authenticite, adherents of the phenomenon celebrated top drawer European and Japanese designer fashion to the status of religion. The cult exists in absolute seriousness by observing its own manifesto and codes such as defining ten ways of walking in order to show off one’s attire. Sapeurs unable to afford the expensive threads simply rent from others. During the Mobutu era they were harassed by the authorities for their often snobbish behaviour such as hiring porters to lift them across the mud puddles in the streets of Kinshasa. This was so as not to ruin their expensive attire. Papa Wemba was the high priest of the cult and his songs were peppered with references to designer labels and other forms of ostentation.

Perhaps it was this taste for the good life that got ‘the chancellor of the designer label’ into trouble. He had had a stint in jail some years back for falling in love with the daughter of a top general in the Mobutu regime. However in 2003 it was more serious when he was arrested for smuggling hundreds of illegal immigrants into Europe for a profit. Found guilty but given a suspended custodial sentence because he had already spent four months in prison, he was fined 13 000 dollars. Much more painful for a man who considered himself an international singer , he was barred from entering Belgium and France. Papa Wemba was left a broken man. When he emerged from his short stay in jail he came out not preaching the religion of cloth as king of sapeurs but the religion of Christianity.

Watching him sitting by the side of the stage, sipping mineral water that evening two years ago, wearing his strange outfit of a European noble man from the middle ages I could only wonder what was going through his mind. At the interval I had the opportunity to have pictures taken with his backing dancers. And as the warm, tropical night of Kinshasa drew towards dawn, Papa Wemba returned for the second set. By now the crowd had moved towards the stage and was either watching or dancing under the mesmeric spell of the last of the baobabs of Congolese music.

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.