Papa Wemba, the late great legend of African music - FT.com
He may have sold fewer records than Prince, but he probably swung more hips.
Papa Wemba was known abroad for bringing Congo’s lilting rumbas into the global arena after blending them with frenetic guitar riffs and his own hauntingly high tenor. At home he was much more than a singer. Among other things he was the original “mikilist”. Mokili means “the world” in Lingala — which for its lyrical expressiveness is the Italian of African languages. Mikili means Europe or the west. And mikilists were the Congolese who had “arrived”, so to speak, in Paris, Brussels or London. There is a utopian element to the concept that has driven millions of young Congolese abroad in search of greener pastures and earnings to remit home. For much of the time that Papa Wemba was strutting the stage, almost anywhere could seem a greener pasture than Zaire, as Congo was formerly called.
His band, Viva la Musica, was the first to tour Europe in the early 1980s, when Zaire was on the brink of a long-drawn-out implosion that rumbles on like so many tropical thunderclouds to this day. He had made it in Kinshasa in the 1970s with his original formation, Zaiko Langa Langa. This took the languid, Cuban-inspired rumbas of the 1960s, stripped out the wind section and speeded up the rhythm, and with it the way people danced. Thus he pioneered soukous. Paris became a base and he began to make it in Europe — the king of mikilists.
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