Belgium asks Papa Wemba about 'missing' musicians

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The Independent Online

Papa Wemba, one of Africa's leading music stars, was yesterday being questioned by Belgian police in connection with claims that he had brought hundreds of illegal immigrants into Europe by passing them off as members of his orchestra.

Papa Wemba, one of Africa's leading music stars, was yesterday being questioned by Belgian police in connection with claims that he had brought hundreds of illegal immigrants into Europe by passing them off as members of his orchestra.

Papa Wemba, 54, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), whose high-pitched voice and extravagant dress sense have earned him fans all over the world, was extradited to Belgium earlier this week from France.

Now a Belgian national with homes in the suburbs of Paris, in Belgium and the DRC, the singer is already under formal investigation in France where he served three months in jail last year for immigration offences before being released on bail.

His lawyer said he was extradited as part of an investigation by French and Belgian border police. It was launched in December 2001 after 200 Africans arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris claiming they were dancers and musicians from Papa Wemba's Viva La Musica band. They later vanished.

In February 2002, Belgian police arrested 15 "musicians'' who had arrived from Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (formerly known as Zaire). They also claimed to be members of Viva La Musica and, after questioning, at least one of the migrants said he had paid $3,500 (£1,845) for his visa and trip.

A French police spokesman said that they had not established the extent of Papa Wemba's "personal involvement.''Officials at the French embassy in Kinshasa are also under investigation.

The star's lawyer, Yves Leberquier, said Papa Wemba - whose real name is Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba - did not always travel with his band and "may have been manipulated by associates''. Under the stage name "Jules Presley'', Papa Wemba burst on to the Congolese music scene shortly after his country's independence from Belgium in 1960, when he was 11.

The son of a "pleureuse'', (a professional mourner), Papa Wemba is credited with inventing rumba-rock - upbeat, Afro-Cuban dance music. in which wind instruments were replaced by drums.

In the 1970s, the musician created his own suburb of Kinshasa called Le Village de Molokai whose residents - his fans - have their own talk, walk and dress style. They are known as members of the "Sape'' - the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes, (ambience-makers and elegant people) - and spend all their money on clothes.

According to legend, a few years after Papa Wemba founded the village, a group of Japanese tourists visited. They were so impressed to find Congolese people wearing clothes by the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto that they returned to Japan laden with Papa Wemba records.

The singer was already big in Japan when the British musician Peter Gabriel discovered him and signed him to his Real World label in 1993.

In the 1990s, Papa Wemba worked with the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour on several fund-raising projects for the International Committee of the Red Cross, including one to promote ethnic tolerance and another opposing land mines.

Papa Wemba was first arrested by French police shortly before a concert, due in February 2002 with a fellow Congolese star, Koffi Olomidé, at the Zenith in Paris.

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