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Music – Papa is back

Sixty-five years, have marked the age of retirement in many countries, including DR Congo, for a long time: but don’t tell Papa Wemba about it. Although growing old, the “king of Congolese rumba” – as he has been known for years – is still at work, and not willing to abdicate.

If as some feared that after the death, in November 2013, of Tabu Ley “Rochereau” – one of the most well-known virtuosos of what was also known as soukous – time was up for this renowned African musical genre, Papa Wemba, who mourned the death of his older colleague by performing at his funeral, is there to prove the opposite. The evidence he brings is a two and a half-hour long album, meaningfully titled Maître d’école (which stands for ‘schoolteacher’ in French). In its 24 tracks (plus a bonus) Wemba makes few, if any, concessions to experimentalisms and contaminations other than those already implied in the concept of Congolese rumba itself, a genre deeply influenced since its origin by Cuban music.

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It could hardly have been different, since the album itself is born out of a firm belief of its author: the time has come for giving the once continentally popular rhythm “a new breath”, in order to face its loss of appeal when faced with rap, hip hop and urban music as a whole. “Papa”, a nickname the singer earned being the elder man in the family after the death of his father, does not seem convinced that the new wave of Congolese artists can undertake such a task, since they do not abide by those fundamental laws of rumba which the 65 years-old artist regards as the boundaries of true art. So, Maître d’école is an attempt by the mwalimu (‘teacher’, as Wemba defines himself using a Kiswahili word) to show the youth the right way and stop what one of his associates defined, speaking to the French weekly Jeune Afrique, a musical “descent to hell”.

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That being said, what one can expect from Maître d’école is already clear. As often happens with ‘big names’ it’s a ‘take it or leave it’ matter. Papa’s powerful voice, still unaffected by time, holds the centre stage, together with guitar solos. In the artist’s own words, this is the kind of “true rumba which made our parents dance, which we currently dance and which our children will dance to”. A musical genre which, as his interpreter puts it “will never have wrinkles”. So, no wonder that the issuing of the album was delayed of a few months to allow its author to include in it some tributes to the much missed and already mentioned Tabu Ley: the man who was nicknamed the baobab – being so deeply rooted in the tradition of soukous he contributed to create – was the best possible tutelary deity for such an operation.
All things considered, Maître d’école can be deemed a would-be classic, in the best sense of the expression, and also a dive into Kinshasa as one would imagine it. From time to time, listening to the album, one literally has an impression of being, so to say, in some collective taxi in the middle of the DRC capital city, with a driver feeling nostalgic for the times when Congolese rumba was a hit in many countries south of the Sahara (and indeed, Nostalgie is the title of one of the songs). Not many of the 25 tracks sound really different: among these few, N’djamena, Ma Rosa and I need you love, which are somehow reminiscent of world music. As for the rest, everything – including the featuring artists, Jossart Nyoka Longo, JB M’Piana, Barbara Kanam et Nana Kouyaté – is carefully crafted in order to get the best out of Wemba’s immense experience and undeniable artistic qualities.

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Nothing is left to chance: the fact that the name of the DRC president Joseph Kabila (who the singer is said to support) is pronounced in Kaporal might seem to contradict Wemba’s statement that he chose “not to be an engagé singer”, but that is only another feature of rumba (though a more recent one) that the artist is paying homage to: the mabangas are names of famous people (such as businessmen, athletes and, of course, politicians) sung or cried out in the lyrics. In short, Maître d’école is not suitable for all kinds of public: if one is looking for a relaxing, high quality sound, he will likely find it, but if he’s fond of musical contamination, he would better look and listen elsewhere. (D.M.)

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