Papa Wemba: The Daddy of them all

He's a legend, a self-confessed poseur, political activist and a serial father. But is African music's biggest star also a people smuggler? As his trial for trafficking illegal immigrants approaches, Rose George meets Papa Wemba - and finds out all about his 'pigs'
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The Independent Culture

December 2000, Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris. The world music star Papa Wemba has just arrived from the Congo with his entourage. It's sizeable, which is not unexpected: Congolese music is fond of big bands, which include dancers - male and female - and plentiful musicians. Some ensembles can have 50 members. But the immigration officers, though well used to artistic visits from French-speaking Africa, are bemused to find that Papa Wemba's party includes about 90 Congolese musicians and dancers. Even by Congolese standards, that's a big big band.

They are more bemused, and less amused, when some of the 90 "singers and dancers" then vanish off their visa radar. Someone begins to keep an eye on Papa Wemba. Not just in France, either: the Belgian immigration authorities have their suspicions. They know that in the Congo - their former colony, and one they keep tabs on - there is even a word for this kind of thing. The Congolese call it ngulu, the Lingala word for pig. "Why pig?" I ask Papa Wemba, when we meet in Paris last month. He laughs. "It's someone who follows someone around without knowing where they're going." The ngulu are stowaways. They pretend to be members of musical ensembles, because Congo's highly talented musicians can get visas easily - for concert tours or to record in Paris or Brussels. The ngulu pays a sum of money - $1,000 (£550), say some, or $3,500 (£1,900) - and hitches a ride on the tour. Then he or she - female dancers are common - disappears.

February 2003, Brussels Charleroi airport. Papa Wemba, as befits a musician of his stature, has been invited to perform at a concert attended by the Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel. Wemba is already in the country, but has invited 15 Congolese - dancers and musicians, again - from Kinshasa. When they disembark, it is into the care of waiting immigration officers. "They had been tipped off," says Papa Wemba, with some bitterness. "Someone betrayed me."

When they are questioned, the 15 "dancers and musicians" turned out to be ngulu. One young woman said she had paid Papa Wemba €4,000 (£2,700) for the trip. They were sent back to Kinshasa immediately. Papa Wemba did his concert that night, then left for France. On 18 February, 2003, he and his wife Amazone were arrested by officers of OCRIEST, the French immigration police, after telephone surveillance of Wemba and some of his entourage.

Even the world press took notice. The King of Rhumba Rock, as Papa Wemba is known, is one of the rare African stars to have global - or at least Francophone - recognition. He has toured with Peter Gabriel and sung with Stevie Wonder. And his fame probably contributed to his downfall. "I'm certain they made an example of him," says Vincent Luttman, who presents the Congolese music show Nostalgie Ya Mboka on London's Resonance FM radio station, and whose knowledge of Papa Wemba is of trainspotting proportions. "He's got the most prestige, internationally. The French and Belgians will use him to show they mean business."

And so they did. Wemba was charged with organised traffic of illegal immigrants - which carries a penalty of 10 years - and spent three and a half months in Fleury-Merogis prison in Paris. Four years earlier, he'd played a concert there for the prisoners. It must have been galling to have become his audience. "It was fine," he says now, seemingly sanguine. "Everyone knew who I was. When I left, the director of the prison personally escorted me to the gates and shook my hand."

We meet in the chic Café de la Musique in Paris. I'm excited because his tenor voice is lovely - no other singer has inspired me to try to sing along in Lingala. And because his career is extraordinary. Expert fans such as Robert Urbanus of Sterns Music, the first port of call for African music fans in London, despair of the repetitive, dull nature of modern Congolese music, but "Papa Wemba is an exception." He's still interesting, as he has always made great pains to be, in a music scene that is vibrant but competitive.

There are 1,000 orchestras currently competing for business in Congo's capital city Kinshasa - Kin for short - but this is nothing compared to how it was. In 1955, according to Gary Stewart's exhaustive history of Congolese music Rumba on the River, the Congolese were buying 600,000 records a year. There were over 300 bars. When the Congo won independence from Belgium in 1960, prime minitster Patrice Lumumba emerged from the Cadillac of Joseph Kabasele, leader of the band African Jazz, and he followed his victory speech with an independence cha-cha-cha.

African Jazz was huge, but so was OK Jazz, led by Francois "Franco" Luambo. Their rivalry made for the beginning of Congo's domination of the African music scene, and fuelled invention. They took Cuban rhumba and salsa, recognising in it the rhythms that African slaves had taken to Cuba in the first place, and mixed it with village music. It wasn't parochial, or tied to a particular country, so it could travel. It was new. Congolese music became the most popular music in Africa, known as Congo music, simply, or soukous, from the French word secousse, a jerk or jolt, because that's what you did when you heard it. By 1969, Franco and Kabasele had been overtaken by Tabu Ley Rochereau and African Fiesta, and then Papa Wemba arrived.

Son of a pleureuse, a professional singer at wakes, and ex-choirboy, Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba soon made his mark. He formed the orchestra Zaiko Langa Langa, which became Congo's Jackson Five in terms of popularity. "We took a new direction," Wemba says in the sleeve notes to his latest release, The First 20 Years. "We rejected wind instruments. We decided not to have just one lead singer. We wanted two, three, four, five or even six singers, all singing at the same time with different harmonies and chants. At first we were criticised by our elders because we weren't following the rules. Like all of the best pop music, ours was rebellious."

Wemba even called himself Presley for a while, until President Mobutu Sese Seko's "Authenticity" campaign banned Western forenames, and he became Papa Wemba. His fame grew: in 1980, the song "Ana Lengo", sung in his native KiTetela dialect, sold half a million copies in Africa.

But Papa Wemba was looking further. He admires the Senegalese performer Youssou N'Dour, to whom he's often compared, because "he looks beyond the end of his nose". Papa's nose was pointed northwards, to the huge African Francophone communities of France and Belgium, to the countries that any Congolese musician aspired to touring, because that's how money was made: even now, royalties are a rarity in Africa, and rampant piracy means most records hardly sell, legitimately. Most musicians get a one-off payment. "In the beginning," says Luttman, "the record labels were run by Greeks. The Greeks had clothing shops as well, so a singer might get a new suit and a moped."

Papa Wemba wanted more than that. He decided fashion was the way to do it. In 1979, he founded Sape, or Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elégantes (Society of Poseurs and Elegant People). If you wanted to * follow Viva La Musica, Wemba's most influential band (he has several, including Nouvelle Ecrita and Molokai), you had to walk a certain way, dress a certain way. Les Sapeurs needed the latest Jimmy West shoes and an Armani jacket. Viva's dancers would take one of their expensive shoes off and put it on their heads, to show it off better, before resuming their dancing. It was cultish, shallow and showy, but a shockwave, in a political atmosphere where "African values" were prized above all.

"Oh," he says now. "That! It's not a priority any more. The priority is being at peace with myself." I ask about the pedicures and manicures he was famous for. He grins, flicks his hand. "No. That's not important now. Not that I don't dress well. I do." Despite the gold studs and nugget dreads, though, he's not looking very Sape: black fleece, ripped jeans. It's not until he stands up and a skirt-like garment drops over his jeans, and he puts an Afghan pakol hat on his head, that he looks like Papa Wemba. Like a star.

He didn't play the star in prison, though he says he was respected for who he was. "Even if they didn't know Papa Wemba, they'd seen the news on TV. They knew what had happened." He kept his head down, and minded his own business. "I did sport, and I sang in the church every Sunday. People left me alone." But you must have been angry at being grassed to the authorities, I say. "Not angry. I was betrayed, but people get betrayed all the time. What's infidelity but betrayal?" (Presumably he knows about this, having six children with Amazone, but an undefined number of other offspring, "because I'm a good African man".)

"I was shocked. I never expected to go to prison. But I went, and I told myself, 'come what may', and I was fine." He received over 800 letters. So much support, that he'll be returning to Kinshasa in June to give a free concert. "I want to thank all the Congolese who got down on their knees and prayed for me, and I want to thank the president of the Republic and all the four vice-presidents."

This is reasonable: Papa Wemba's €30,000 (£20,000) bail was certainly paid by the Congolese government, and there are strong indications that it came out of President Joseph Kabila's personal petty cash. "Papa Wemba said he couldn't pay it," says an official in Belgium's Interior Ministry who knows the case well. "And that doesn't surprise me. All these stars live beyond their means." Like his peers, most of Wemba's money probably comes from libanga, whereby important Congolese pay to have their name mentioned in a song, in a commercialised version of traditional African praise-singing. A song-length dedication, by someone of Wemba's stature, could cost $10,000 (£5,500). But it's hard to record libanga in a prison church choir.

But Wemba has put that behind him. "No, I don't want to go back to prison." But it's not a question of whether you want to, I point out. The cases in Belgium and France are still awaiting verdicts. They could be guilty ones. Papa Wemba is dismissive. He waves his big cigar, that he smokes "partly for show". He says, as if I'm being obtuse, "I can't go back to jail, because I can't pay the same penalty twice."

I am confused. I am often confused during our conversation. Even the most obvious question of all - "Papa Wemba, are you guilty?" - doesn't get a straightforward answer. "I was betrayed," he says. "They wanted to assassinate my art." Who? "You know the story of Judas and Jesus? Well..." But he doesn't finish the sentence. You were betrayed by someone in your entourage? "Of course. I knew that this ngulu business was going on. Every Congolese knows that. But I wasn't trafficking. I never took money for it." I mention that he's widely reported - not only in Kin gossip papers but by Associated Press and Western wire services - to have admitted his guilt when he was first arrested, and confessed to having taken €100,000 (£67,000) in payments. "No! Journalists write rubbish. If I ever took money - and I'm not saying I did - it was for humanitarian reasons. I took a dozen children out of the country so they could escape the terrible conditions that exist there." This is true: Congo's five-year war has killed between 3 million and 4 million people, demolished an economy and destroyed state infrastructure. Congo is a state in name only, and there are powerful economic reasons for trying to escape it.

The Belgian ministry official laughs at this. "I'm not surprised that's his defence." But she heard different. "Congolese officials told me that it was a close relative who started it, and Papa Wemba got mixed up in the system. When he was arrested, he confessed everything, because his wife risked prison too. He said she was innocent, and he took on all the guilt himself."

Wemba's talent in slipperiness shouldn't be unexpected. It takes cunning to survive in Congo's overpopulated music scene. "It's very backstabbing," says Urbanus. Congolese musicians even make money from recording polémiques, interviews where they diss everyone else, which then circulate as video cassettes. But Papa Wemba has survived for 35 years. A recording with Peter Gabriel won a gold disc. Emotion, his 1995 release on Gabriel's Real World label, sold 100,000 copies worldwide. For an African musician, that's substantial. "I have a good career, I have enough money. I didn't get paid. Why would I do it?"

Because everyone else did. "I don't want to say anything bad about Papa Wemba," says Kinshasa-based journalist Jean-Pierre Nkutu, who writes about Wemba for Le Phare magazine. "Most musicians are not kind to journalists, but he has always been a gentleman. I don't want to disturb that." But is he guilty? "Oh, it's so delicate. But ngulu has been going on for years."

"They all do it," says the Belgian official, matter-of-factly. "Everyone makes money off it. Officials, airport people - everyone." The charge list of the Belgians and French reads like a Top 10 in the Kinshasa hit parade. Koffi Olomide. Werrason. Nyoka Longo. All top musicians, all arrested, all released for lack of evidence. The immigration authorities have made their point. Even though Papa Wemba's international extradition warrant was lifted - "it makes me feel like Osama bin Laden," he said when it was imposed - and even though the Belgians gave him his passport back and told him he could travel freely.

The Congolese rumour mill - Radio Trottoir, or Radio Pavement - points to closed-door politics. "If you ask me," says a friend of Papa's, "they've done a deal. They've used Wemba as an example to rein in everyone else." There are grounds for this view. President Kabila has publicly told musicians to behave more responsibly. Papa Wemba, after having a Paris base for years, is suddenly intent on returning to live in Kin. "He says he wants to," says the friend, "but maybe he had no choice." Maybe that's why the Belgians gave him bail and freedom of movement, even though no trial dates have been set and there is, officially, no reason for Papa to be confident of an acquittal.

Papa won't be drawn on long-term plans. He's going to Kin to celebrate his 55th birthday, to give his free concert, and then it's back to work. His next album will be called Bravo L'Artiste "and it will be my artistic revenge". He's talking big - he wants to work with Craig David, Robert Cray and Stevie Wonder - but the future is murky, no matter how bright his ambition. Last year, the Belgian and French authorities tightened visa requirements. Producers are now supposed to supply a concrete itinerary, proof of accommodation and insurance for every musician. It's costly. No Congolese ensembles have toured in Belgium since the new regulations were set up. There are only a few recording studios in Kinshasa, and technology is basic. Concert tickets cost 50 cents, and most Congolese make less than $1 a day. If Congo's musicians can't travel, they can't make a living.

"This has floored them," says the Belgian official, who is remarkably sympathetic. "It's catastrophic. The Congolese really have to take responsibility." Last year, at a seminar in Kinshasa on the ngulu phenomenon, Congolese officials spoke forcefully of combating the problem. There is vague talk of a professional card system, along Equity lines. Embassy officials are being pressed to be more vigilant. "They asked a group of dancers who'd applied for a visa to come and dance, to prove they were who they said they were," says the Belgian. "But every Congolese can dance! They all know the steps. Our embassy staff have to be less naïve, and the Congolese have to be more rigorous. Otherwise, it's the end of Congolese music."

Papa isn't finished, though. Not yet. He reaches over, pats my arm. His charming manner slips for a moment into star-speak. "The world hasn't forgotten Papa Wemba," he says confidently. "Even now, with all my problems, they know I'm a singer. I'll always be a singer. Just one who's had problems with the law."

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