Real World Records
Papa Wemba was one of the very first musicians to join the influential Soukous band, Zaiko Langa Langa when it was created on December 24, 1969 in Kinshasa (Capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) along with such well known Congolese musicians as Nyoka Longo Jossart, Manuaku Pepe Felly, Evoloko Lay Lay, Teddy Sukamu, Zamuangana Enock, Mavuela Simeon, and others.
In a Congolese musical world dominated at the time by Franco Luambo and his remarkable band TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Afrisa, and by then-new musical groups like Les Grands Maquisards, Le Trio Madjesi, and even younger bands like Bella-Bella, Thu Zaina and Empire Bakuba, the young and talented Papa Wemba (then known as Jules Presley Shungu Wembadio), was one of the driving forces that by 1973 made Zaiko Langa Langa one of the most-performing dominant Congolese groups, featuring such popular numbers as “Chouchouna” (Papa Wemba), “Eluzam” and ” Mbeya Mbeya” (Evoloko Lay Lay), “BP ya Munu” (Efonge Gina) and “Zania” (Mavuela Somo).
In December 1974, at the pinnacle of their fame (and just a month after the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa), Shungu Wembadio (Papa Wemba), along with Evoloko Lay Lay, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana (who’d joined Zaiko Langa Langa a year earlier), left Zaiko Langa Langa to establish their own musical ensemble Isifi Lokole, ISIFI being an acronym for “Institut de Savoir Ideologique pour la Formation des Idoles.” In July 1975, Shungu Wembadio officially adopted the soon-to-be-well-known worldwide artist name Papa Wemba, the addition of “Papa” (father) an allusion to what were in fact rather awesome family responsiblities as the first son in a family where both father and mother (Wemba’s parents) had been deceased since the 1960s.
The “feux d’artifice” (fireworks) that was Isifi Lokole would only last a year, with the single “Amazone” (Papa Wemba) as its biggest commercial “hit” record. In November 1975, Papa Wemba, Mavuela Somo and Bozi Boziana abandoned Evoloko Lay Lay and Isifi Lokole to create the group Yoka Lokole (also known as The Kinshasha All-Stars, or Lokole Isifi, or simply Isifi), along with Mbuta Mashakado, another Zaiko Langa Langa ‘transfusion.’ Yoka Lokole enjoyed slightly less popular success than the original Isifi Lokole, but for a time still managed to remain at the top the African pop music wave with hit songs like “Matembele Bangui”, “Lisuma ya Zazu” (Papa Wemba), “Mavuela Sala Keba”, and “Bana Kin” (Mavuela Somo).
Like Isifi Lokole, the electronic-instrument driven Yoka Lokole (or The Kinshasha All-Stars) would not last much longer than a year, given the merger of so many big-name talents in the band’s lineup. After a year of modest success, controversies within Yoka Lokole over money and prestige (complicated by Wemba’s arrest and brief incarceration in Kinshasa Central prison in December 1976 for the ‘crime’ of being suspected of having had physical intimacy with an influential army general’s daughter) would lead Papa Wemba, then feeling diminished by peers and neglected by the public, to form his own group Viva la Musica in February 1977.
At his home in the Matonge neighborhood of Kinshasa, Papa Wemba structured Viva la Musica around young talented artists like singers Kisangani Esperant, Jadot le Cambodgien, Pepe Bipoli and Petit Aziza, guitarists Rigo Star, Syriana, and Bongo Wende. The group had nearly instantaneous success, with hit songs like “Mere Superieure,” “Mabele Mokonzi,” “Bokulaka,” “Princesse ya Sinza,” and others.
During the height of his success in 1977, Papa Wemba’s family home, which had become a popular, some even said hallowed/special place for Matonge youths to gather “à la mode” (i.e., to be cool) was named the “Village Molokai,” and Wemba assumed the exalted moniker “Chef Coutumier” (Chief) of the Village of Molokai. In those days people referred to Papa Wemba as the “chief from the heartland (village)” to differentiate him from Kinshasa-born musical bigshots Mavuela Somo and Mashakado. However years later Mavuela would say that their difficulties only simply amounted to trivial foolishness over money, ambition and fame between some very-young people (that at the time they all were).
Since 1977, Viva la Musica has seen both the ‘defections’ of musicians every two or three years and the entrée and emergence of other new talents. King Kester Emeneya (1977-1982), Koffi Olomide (1978-1979), Djuna Djanana (1978-1981), Dindo Yogo (1979-1981), Maray-Maray (1980-1984), Lidjo Kwempa (1982-2001), Reddy Amissi (1982-2001), Stino Mubi (1983-2001) are among the currently well-known Congolese musicians who have served at one time or another with Viva la Musica. An old Kinshasa anecdote says that a college student then-named Antoine Agbepa Koffi was such an impressive songwriter that one day in 1977 Papa Wemba exhorted, “Ooh! l’homme idee” (Oh! the idea-man!) thereby on-the-spot renaming the impressive young singer-songwriter Koffi ‘Olomide’—and the name stuck!
After the wave of African emigration to Europe in the 1990s, Wemba maintained one group in Kinshasa (called at times “Nouvelle Ecriture,” “Nouvel Ecrita,” and now again “Viva la Musica”) and another one in Paris (“Nouvelle Generation,” “La Cour des Grands,” and now “Viva Tendance”). He has also consistently maintained a very high profile in World Music with such great hits as “L’Esclave” (1986), “Le Voyageur, Maria Valencia” (1992), “Foridoles, Dixieme Commandement” (1994), “Emotion” (1995), “Pole Position” (1996), “Fula Ngenge” (1999), “Bakala dia Kuba” (2001), and “Somo Trop” (2003). Many would assign Wemba the status of African-music “living legend,” as few others in history could claim (Franco Luambo, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Miriam Makeba certainly among them).
Papa Wemba is also known as an actor. In 1987, he played the male lead role in the successful Zairean (Congolese) film La Vie est Belle by Belgian director Benoit Lami and Congolese producer-director Ngangura Mweze.