2016 continues to gobble up our cherished music legends without pause. We’re still mourning the passing of Prince and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg before him, and David Bowie before him, and Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White before him, and Eagles founder Glenn Frey before him, and now there’s a fresh report of another icon’s death. Papa Wemba, referred to many as the “father of rhumba” passed away yesterday while performing in Cote d’Ivoire. The 66 year-old was going through his set at the Festival des Musiques Urbaines d’Anoumabo in Abidjan when he suddenly collapsed. Organizers of the event have now confirmed that Papa Wemba, born Jules Shungu Wembadio, suffered a seizure as he performed his third song. Members of his band and Red Cross emergency staff immediately rushed to his aid but the Congolese star passed away in the ICU while efforts to revive him were still underway.
Growing up I remember Papa Wemba as one of the artists holding a light for African music at a time when Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, Cyndi Lauper and the likes dominated the global stage. Into hip hop and R&B as I was back in the 90s, his duet with Koffi Olomide, the refreshing afro-pop tune ‘Wake Up’, always caught my ear when it came on radio. Its video captured me with its brilliance and positivity and the footage at the beginning showcased his voice in its pure, unmastered richness.
That 1996 hit was just one of the highlights of a career that spanned more than 40 years and produced more than 40 albums. Besides making a name for himself as one of the DRC’s greatest talents of the 20th century, Papa Wemba mentored many budding musicians, including the great Olomide, whom he allegedly also named. Through his various musical ensembles, Papa Wemba also helped popularize the fashionista or ‘sapeur’ culture, taking beyond its birthplace in the Congo.
Miami Based, Internationally Known