One of Africa’s greatest musicians has died on stage

Congo’s most famous musician Papa Wemba (1949-2016).
Congo’s most famous musician Papa Wemba (1949-2016).
Image: Reuters/ David Lewis
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Papa Wemba, the Congolese King of Rumba, collapsed on stage during a live performance in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire and was later pronounced dead. He was 66.

He was a founding member of the legendary band Zaiko Langa Langa, which opened the pre-fight extravaganza for the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa in 1974. Wemba, who used to perform in the band as Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, is best known for his hugely successful solo career. He’s credited with taking the Soukous-rumba sound to the global stage through the 1980s and ’90s by merging local sounds with everything from rock to rap, and working with international artists like Peter Gabriel. He often sang in his local Lingala and French.

His sound has influenced a range of African artists beyond his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Like other Congolese artists, the Soukous sound gained further pan-African status after the civil war that broke out in 1996. The conflict forced Congolese artists to go farther afield to earn a living and Soukous soon became popular from Lagos to Dar es Salaam.

Seun Kuti, son of another African music legend Fela Kuti, paid homage to Wemba on his Instagram page, describing him as “a King of African music.”

He was not just a leader in music, but also in fashion, popularizing the flamboyant “Sapeur” dandy style of expensive bright designer outfits, which has long since become a movement of “Les Sapeurs“ in DRC, Belgium, and France.

Papa Wemba led a colorful and, at times, controversial life, including a three-month stint in prison in France for human-smuggling in 2004 and at home in DRC for an affair with a general’s daughter.