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Music – Farewell to Papa Wemba

It is not common for the Vatican spokesperson to release an interview to remember a music star, but for Papa Wemba, Fr. Federico Lombardi made what can be regarded as a notable exception.
The Jesuit priest, as director of the press office of the Holy See, has more often to deal with the interpretation of papal documents and with religious affairs, but on May 4 he spoke with Vatican Radio to mourn the Congolese artist who died onstage on 24 April 2016 in Ivory Coast.

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Wemba, of course, was a Catholic who had worked together with Vatican Radio and the Holy See after the Second African Synod and had also performed in front of Pope Benedict XVI when the then Pontiff visited Benin in 2009, but this wasn’t the only reason that led Fr. Lombardi to join the mourning of the many fans and friends of the singer. His songs, the Vatican spokesperson said, “bear a message that will last continuously”. “Singing for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation is to sing for a better world; a reconciled world in which Africa is invited to live joyfully”, he added, pointing out one of the reason why Wemba gained an immense popularity. This went well beyond the borders of his home country (he was born in 1949 in Belgian Congo, now the DRC): he was famous on the whole continent and, to a certain extent, also in the West. The list of his most important collaborations is a clear proof of that: it includes, among others, Youssou N’dour, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton and Peter Gabriel.

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It’s in Africa, however, that Wemba’s songs have been aired virtually everywhere for years, as one could expect by one of the best interpreters of soukouss, or Congolese rumba, among the most successful African musical genres ever. ‘The king of rumba’ was in fact one of the many sobriquets under which Wemba (born Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) was known during the 66 years of his life. His favourite one, however, was probably ‘mwalimu’, the Kiswahili word for ‘teacher’: a role that he, as an elder, felt he had to play for the younger African musicians. This was also the concept behind his 2014 album, Maître d’école (the French expression for the same job), in which he aimed to take the musical genre that made him famous back to its roots. “True rumba which made our parents dance, which we currently dance and which our children will dance to”, he defined it in an interview.

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While in these years the favour of the younger part of the public in DRC actually went to other artists and even the musical experts paid more attention to other singers and bands, Wemba’s death was mourned by the entire nation. Thousands attended the commemorations held at the national parliament, when the body of the deceased artist lay for three days and even government officials and international  diplomats were present at the funeral mass in the cathedral of Kinshasa. In fact, the event was in some way historical, as Wemba might have been the last of the great virtuosos of the soukouss, a musical genre which marked an era in Congo, not only from the artistic point of view. Joseph Kabaselé’s Independance Cha Cha, in the 1960s became almost an unofficial anthem celebrating the newly acquired freedom from colonialism and, in the following years, the musical dominance of personalities such as Tabu Ley ‘Rochereau’ and Franco Luambo marked the national culture for much time to come.

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Papa Wemba was the companion – and due to his younger age also in some way the heir – of these great figures and brought to the Congolese rumba some developments of his own, which made the sound accessible also for international audiences: it became known as “rumba rock”, due to a different tempo and the use of the guitars. Over the years, some critics reproached him of having betrayed the musical tradition of the land, an accusation to which he replied briefly: “What I create is not Congolese music anymore, it’s not even African music. – he said -It’s just simply music”.

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On the same tune, his friend Eric Didia, an Ivory Coast – born music promoter told the Reuters news agency shortly after the singer’s death: “I do not know if this is a loss for African music because the music does not die”. People, he went on, “can listen to Papa Wemba songs in 50 years, in 100 years”. If this will prove to be true, only time can tell, but for certain Wemba has already achieved something very similar in his lifetime: once a Catholic choirboy from Lubefu, he managed to become one of the most renowned artists in his country and survived, from an artistic point of view, many mutations in the musical world during the more than four decades of his career. His most famous songs might no longer be hits in the future, but the sound he contributed to create has left a long-lasting mark. (F.G.)

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