The Indomitable Papa Wemba

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When Papa Wemba collapsed onstage at a concert in Côte d’Ivoire last April, the world lost another one of its musical giants. A bandleader, singer, and fashion icon from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Papa Wemba — who was 66 when he died — was as bold and eccentric as they come, beloved across Africa and the West for his piercing vocal style, outrageous outfits, and countless albums of infectious music, which mixed traditional Congolese and Cuban-style rhythms with intertwining electric guitars, intricate multi-part harmonies, and global influences.

Born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in 1949 in what was then the Belgian Congo, Papa Wemba first made a name for himself as one of the founding singers of the legendary Kinshasa soukous band Zaiko Langa Langa — sometimes referred to as the Rolling Stones of the Congo for their rebellious sensibilities and amped-up take on the rumba-inspired guitar and vocal music of previous innovators like Franco Luambo Makiadi and Sam Mangwana. After releasing numerous hit records and helping invent a dance called the cavacha, Papa Wemba broke off and started his own group, Viva La Musica. Later he relocated to Paris and teamed up with an international cast of collaborators (including “world music” champion Peter Gabriel) to explore everything from Latin music to soul/R&B to some astonishingly eccentric synth and drum machine sounds.

Papa Wemba also starred in the hit 1987 Congolese film La Vie est belle, and he pioneered the dandy-ish “sapeur” style, inspiring generations of Congolese youth to stroll the streets while sporting rainbow-colored three-piece suits, furry hats, bowler caps and old-timey tobacco pipes. The songs on this playlist take in his distinct legacy — spanning his career from the early ‘70s up to some of his latest releases, like his well-received album from 2010, Notre Pere Rumba.