Adieu Dieu De Rumba!

Papa Wemba

Magic System is an international African musical group made in Anoumabo in Marcory district of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Twenty years ago, four young boys — Asalfo, Goude, Tino and Manadja — teamed up to form what is now internationally recognised as a successful ‘Zouglou’ group known as Magic System. Anoumabo could be described back then as the Ajegunle of Lagos where impoverished youths struggled with unemployment, poverty, insecurity and other ills of the society. As Ajegunle in Nigeria produced the likes of Daddy Showkey so did Anoumabo give birth to Magic System. Today, however, the story is different in both Ajegunle and Anoumabo: they have changed infrastructurally with time and many of the ‘bad’ boys and girls have grown up now to become respectable members of the society. As the saying goes it is only the imbecile that changes not with intervening years in-between.

Papa Wemba
Papa Wemba

Magic System has travelled the world spreading the good rhythm of ‘Zouglou’, meeting and wining and dining with Presidents, Kings and Queens and winning awards. They have made names for themselves by their rag-to-riches story, grass-to-grace tale. They have also made good money becoming rich as the years went by. Community hospitals and schools have been built for the Anoumabo community and every year since 2007 a festival is organized in the hitherto ghetto town where international superstars and stars come annually to celebrate the Magic System success story and the Anoumabo transformation. What constitutes a powerful lesson here is that whereever one is born destiny can be delayed but cannot be denied! Poverty could, sometimes, be a stepping stone to greater tomorrow.

This year the FEMUA (Festival de Musique Urbaine d’Anoumabo) was held from the 18th to the 24th April. Dozens of local and international artists and comedians and politicians were at hand to honour this year’s edition and magnify the community developmental efforts of the melody group. Papa Wemba was the chief guest of honour; he was billed to perform in both Abidjan and Khorogo in the north of the country. Other notable musical artists (including those from Nigeria) partook in the free fiesta for the majority poor.

Giving back something to the community that made you should ordinarily be a good gesture. But in Nigeria such initiative is seldom heard of or rarely seen given our attitude towards success and fame. When we were born and bred in Ajegunle, for instance, and somehow fortune smiled on us it is normal that our lifestyles would change including our wardrobes but abandoning Ajegunle altogether for VGC or Banana Island or Lekki Phase 1 calls for introspection.

The well-publicised FEMUA festival began very well on a Tuesday and it was supposed to end on Sunday night with a live concert in Khorogo town in the north. But tragedy struck suddenly on the Sunday morning. Papa Wemba was performing live with his musical orchestra in Anoumabo when very early in the morning he suddenly collapsed on stage and was pronounced dead on arrival in the specialist hospital in town! Yes, Wemba had died! Like Lucky Dube, the reggae great from the Rainbow nation of South Africa, the rumba king died (though without any element of violent aggression) but his music lives on!

Congo has produced great musicians who sell the image of Africa to the wider world by their musical talents, dress-sense and cultural emancipation. Many Congolese had benefitted from employment as dancers, singers and other professions overseas via immigration made easy and possible by their compatriots who shuttled between Kinshasa and Bruxelles and Paris. Papa Wemba was one of them.

Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, alias Papa Wemba, 66, was born to a professional wailer of a mother who cried at funerals for a fee! Often the then baby Jules would be strapped to the poor woman’s back as she wept profusely at funerals. He began the journey to his musical destiny from the church where he sang during services. From there he founded a group called Zaiko Langa Langa but went solo years later as he settled in France. A flamboyant figure with rich wardrobe Wemba made name and money and made some people rich as well by showing the way. He was a jolly good fellow who was known as the traditional chief of ‘Molokai kingdom’ in Kinshasa. In Abidjan where he bowed out he was honoured and tributes poured in torrents from all around the world.

Wemba had had some downs in his eventful life. He was once arrested and prosecuted in Paris France for allegedly running a network of human trafficking from Congo to Europe. In fact he was convicted in 2004 for smuggling illegal African immigrants to Europe and actually spent months behind bars until thousands of Euros was paid to secure his release. During the kleptocracy of the late Mobutu Sese-Seko he had a brush with the law and served a term in prison for assaulting a General’s daughter! He was accused by the political opponents of the current President Joseph Kabila of singing the praise of the president and dancing to his tunes. But even Koffi Olomide, another Congolses great, has been described by his critics as a musical mercenary who sings in praise of politicians for financial favours.

Many years ago in Nigeria a musical legend passed away. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died of AIDS-related disease and left behind 36 wives and many children including the wonderful musicians, Femi and Seun. Fela was a revolutionary who used his Afrobeat songs to wage war against military rule and human rights abuses of the jackboot. Have you listened lately to “Zombie”? Or to “BONN” (Beast Of No Nation)? Or better still “ODOO” (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake)? Fela was an African icon; a man of many parts whose talent fetched him fame and honour at home and abroad.

During the military dictatorship of one Olusegun Obasanjo Fela had rough and tough times as he battled the despotic elements at Dodan Barracks. Tragically he paid dearly for his effrontery and activism. His aged mother living in his home in Ikeja was thrown down from a 3-storey apartment when the “Zombies” described as “unknown soldiers” invaded Fela’s home at wee hours of the night! The aged woman was simply murdered for the ‘sins’ of her son! Fela fought against oppression and oppressors till his last breath. He released popular albums at different epochs in the chequered history of the Nigerian nation.

The ‘President’ of Kalakuta republic is still celebrated (or should I say ‘Felabrated’?) worldwide today decades after his demise and his two sons are doing greatly in national and international scenes. Kalakuta has been reformed but the Fela spirit lives on — more or less without the marijuana connection. Femi is a decent guy and he has transformed Kalakuta into a decent enclave where good vibes are produced for decent people.

I had a close encounter with the late Abami Eda in Benin City in the early 90’s. My student friends and I were going for a late-night gig downtown when we decided to stop over at Iyaro Park for some refreshment. It was well after midnight as we smoked, munched away and drank happily. When a small group of people started gathering around a luxury bus parked few meters from where we were seated we asked questions and were told that Fela and his dancers and musicians were inside the bus. We curiously approached the bus and went inside only to see Fela relaxing and smoking his weed! We greeted him and shook his hands calling him the president of the Kalakuta republic with whom we were well pleased and thrilled to meet for the first time. He laughed heartily and addressed us as his ‘sons’!

But what we noticed from that close encounter with the phenomenal Fela was that he was looking emaciated and gaunt and tired. A lot of girls were around him smoking or drinking. Little did we know then that the AIDS epidemic was hammering away at Fela’s internal organs reducing him to a living ghost. But he was cheerful and simple. When one remembers what Majek Fashek has become lately then we ask: why do musicians live dangerously and commit ‘suicide’ without actually committing the real suicide but by killing themselves through things of the flesh? Majek, the send-down-the-rain star has almost destroyed himself by his alleged addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Wemba was suffering from an undisclosed ailment for years and was recently hospitalised before flying down to Abidjan for the FEMUA with all his orchestra. But four songs down the line early Sunday morning he collapsed with microphone in hand! Before his death he had declared that he would die singing and dancing as that was what he knew best how to do and his wish came to pass! It would seem he had a premonition of his death. Death is no stranger to celebrities. Just before Wemba died Prince was found dead in his palatial home in the United States. A legend he died from an undisclosed illness leaving behind millions of fans across the world to mourn him. But his musical works like those of Wemba and Fela and Dube would remain ever-green.

Wemba was a complete man of melody who transported in his personality all that the African man is: sometimes an artist and sometimes a man with his paradoxes and abundant passions. He transported in him musical hopes of a generation and all our cultural identities. That is why he was a very important personality counted among the greats of his generation and our generation in our continent. A living legend, like Fela and Dube, a totemic personage indeed. This prematured departure to the great beyond can only but amplify what he was and what he would ever remain in our hearts and minds.

Adieu le dieu de Rumba! (Farewell to the god of Rumba) You will forever be remembered and count in the lives of men and women of this continent of culture of ours. Adieu!


Image by dicap ipups via Flickr

Written by
SOC Okenwa
Join the discussion