I was very shocked and saddened to learn of Papa Wemba’s death last night.
It is hard to realise I now have to talk about him in the past.
He was such an extraordinary talent – music flowed out of him effortlessly and he could thrill people with one of the most beautiful and emotional voices I have ever heard.
His music was full of gentle rhythms and joy, but the passion came from the power of his singing, which always carried a sadness, especially in his high voice, which I found really moving.
I remember talking to Chris Blackwell about all the great voices of Africa and he said that Wemba was the greatest of them all.
Papa Wemba was deeply affected by the destructive violence and poverty in his country and hated the western stereotypes of an Africa without hope. This was one of the reasons he created the Sapeur movement (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes d’Élégance – SAPE) which gave young people real confidence in how they looked and presented themselves to the world. What seemed to some as trivial and flamboyant gave many in West Africa and Paris a real identity and pride.
His run-in with the French and Belgian immigration authorities for smuggling people into Europe was a real low-point in his career, but we only ever saw him act kindly and always assumed that his motivation had been honourable.
I feel very privileged to have known him and to have had the chance to write, record and tour with one of the world’s greatest singers and musicians.
Read more about Papa Wemba on the Real World Records website here.