Papa Wemba, one of Africa’s best-loved musicians has collapsed and died on stage, bringing to a dramatic close a career spanning six decades that brought him to the attention of an international audience – and European police.
The Congolese rumba singer remained one of his continent’s most popular stars at the age of 66, and was playing a televised concert in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when he fainted and was later pronounced dead at the scene.
A pioneer of soukous music who combined Western rock influences with traditional sounds, he found fame across Francophone Europe after moving to Paris in the early eighties.
Real name Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, he was named Best African Artist at the inaugural all-Africa Musi Awards, KORA, in 1996. He sang with Stevie Wonder, and he won a gold disc for a recording with Peter Gabriel.
But he made headlines around the world in 2003 when he was caught up in a widespread immigration racket known as ngulu, where people trying to flee war-torn Congo paid to be hidden among the large entourages of African big bands.
Papa Wemba was convicted for his involvement in 2004 and spent three months in a French prison, while his bail on similar charges in Belgium was reportedly paid for by the Congolese president himself.
His supporters say he was used by the authorities to set an example over a practice that was rife among the Congo’s biggest stars, using popular European tours as a way out after the war in Congo which killed at least three million people in five years.
Speaking in an interview with The Independent after his conviction, Papa Wemba said he had been “betrayed” to the authorities after he invited 15 Congolese “dancers and musicians” to join him in Europe who turned out to be nothing of the sort.
“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,” Papa Wemba said at the time.
The singer was only convicted after he confessed, amid some suggestions from Belgian officials that he only did so to protect a close relative involved in the racket.
“If I ever took money – and I’m not saying I did – it was for humanitarian reasons,” he said. “I took a dozen children out of the country so they could escape the terrible conditions that exist there.”
Papa Wemba was also convicted and given a suspended prison sentence for the same crime in Belgium in 2012.
The controversy did little to dampen the spirit of “the king of Congolese rumba”, however, who continued to receive the support of his government after his death.
Reacting to the news on Sunday morning, the Congolese Culture Minister Baudouin Banza Mukalay called it a “great loss for the country and all of Africa”.
- The Independent