Kings of Rhumba – The death of Papa Wemba

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Papa  Wemba

Papa Wemba

The news of Papa Wemba’s death happened at a time I was thinking about rhumba. Surfing the net, I happened to come across the Franco hit song Tres Impoli (very Rude in French) sang by Franco in a mixture of French and Lingala. Memories flooded into my head of the heyday of rhumba and it also brought back memories of two friends of mine who were rhumba fans.
The late Paul Lwando and I spent hours and hours listening to rhumba music together and we had a good time practising our schoolboy French trying to decipher the lyrics. Bwalya Njelesani and I drove across Zambia on various business trips listening to rhumba music and in particular Franco. Both Bwalya and Paul had collections of Franco’s music on tape and would assiduously hunt for it wherever they could find it.
The popularity of rhumba was not just a Zambian phenomenon. Rhumba music swept across Africa in the 1960s and made musicians from the then Zaire famous across the whole continent. The throbbing pulsating beats from Kinshasa were popular in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa and were a staple both in clubs and bars as well as in plush hotels.
Rhumba music was popular right across Africa. My father once said one thing that was common in all African countries in the early 1980s in every country he visited was the music. Whether in Ghana, Nigeria , Cameroon , Gabon, Malawi , Ivory Coast , Botswana, Zimbabwe, Togo or Kenya, when you relaxed and listened to music you heard rhumba either on the radio or copied by a local band or even played by the Zairean émigré bands that spread across Africa and played in most hotels. Even in revolutionary Marxist and highly nationalistic Ethiopia, the hotel bands would eventually belt out a rhumba song or two.
One man towered over them all. Franco the undisputed King of Rhumba. Just over 25 years ago, Luambo Luanzo Makiadi popularly known as Franco, the Father of Rhumba, passed away at the tender age of 51, right in the prime of his illustrious musical career.
In his 30 year career Franco ruled African Music with his jazz influenced rhumba which consisted of intricate heavily instrumental beats backed up by his deep rich voice and a succession of highly talented backing vocalists like Josky Kiambukuta, Pepe Kalle, and Sam Mangwana who became stars in their own right. He churned out a veritable library of music with songs like Ngai Marie Nzoto Ebaba, Gare a Toi Marie (in the 60s), Mado, Cedou ( in the 70s), Pesa Ngai Position, Arzoni, Suite Lettre, Tres Mpoli, Farceur, Mamou and of course the famous Mario (the 80s). Franco, ‘Le Grand Maitre’ or the Great Teacher released over 1,000 songs and over 150 albums.
He did have rivals like Tabu Ley also known as Rochereau. For two decades, intense rivalry between Franco, “the sorcerer of the guitar”, and Tabu-Ley, of “the ebony voice”, powered a golden age in Congolese music. Influenced by funk and rock ‘n’ roll, adding more saxophones and the bass guitar, they made the Congolese song faster and fuller. The lyrics also changed to reflect the concerns of a swelling urban class.
Franco sang of unfaithful men and women, prostitutes and money while Tabu-Ley, partly influenced by a visit from James Brown, America’s “godfather of soul”, to play at the “Rumble in the Jungle” (the celebrated boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974), turned his performances into glittering, all-dancing extravaganzas.
Despite his well-modulated French, Franco never graduated from high school and unlike some of the other great musicians of his era was therefore not that highly educated for a man of such great achievements. His band the T.P. O.K. Jazz was slick, professional and well organized which made it dominate the music scene in the region at that time. Up to now, very few musicians can lay claim to this type of fame in Africa.
He had a love hate relationship with the then President Mobutu Sese Seko Wazabanga, for whom he sang many songs of praise, like Oh….Zaire, when the latter decided to change the name of the country from Congo Kinshasa to Zaire or Une Candidat Bisolo (The Best Candidate) when he stood alone in a one man election and so on.. He was also thrown in prison for singing songs that were interpreted as critical or too lurid. In fact on one occasion the tiff was about a woman. The two legendary womanisers collided over a woman and General Mobutu prevailed. Franco retaliated with a song about big men who stole other people’s wives. The result was a stint in jail for Franco.

Franco Lwambo

Franco Lwambo

Franco LwamboSo powerful was Franco and so influential was his music that when he produced a song about his tailor, Anniversaire de Fabrice, it became an instant hit and his tailor Fabrice became the tailor of choice of all well to do Zairians and he eventually retired to Brussels a very wealthy man making suits for his clients at $500 a suit and only on appointment!!! Another man whose business got a boost from Franco was the local VW dealer in Kinshasa but business was bad. He approached Franco and Franco produced a song Ve We (VW in French). Business shot up!!!
Even Franco’s love life was influenced by rhumba music. Franco got married in 1958, but never had children for 8 years. It was initially rumoured that he had sacrificed his manhood for the sake of wealth; Franco proved them wrong when he subsequently had 19 children. The amazing fact is that he had a whopping 18 daughters and only 1 son! The song Matata ya Mwasi was sang questioning God why he only gave him one son and so many daughters!
Franco was a ladies’ man. This was probably the reason it is suspected he died of AIDS. His last song, Attention Na Sida, was a stark warning about the disease.
In 1987 Franco visited Zambia for a single concert for which he was paid a whopping 50,000 dollars. The controversy over the waste of money, especially foreign exchange, for such a luxury was swept aside by popular sentiment. They wanted to hear the master of rhumba, Franco. 60,000 people showed up willing to pay K50 ($6 at the time) for the cheapest seats or more in the grandstands and VIP areas for the privilege of watching Franco and he performed and as we later calculated earned $20,000 an hour!!!!
Two years later he was dead. Franco died after a long illness suspected to be a combination of prostate cancer and Aids just the same way like his patron Mobutu was to die. His music lives on and there are still many, adoring fans dotted around Africa.

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2 Responses to Kings of Rhumba – The death of Papa Wemba

  1. Is this article supposed to be about Franco or Papa Wemba? Misleading headline.

    Misango Yaba Chaimani
    April 27, 2016 at 3:53 pm
    Reply

  2. @Misango yaba Chaimani

    Whoever it is about, the fact is that both Franco and Papa Wemba are screaming in the same cell in Hell with Michael Jackson and Pope John Paul II

    Jerabo
    April 27, 2016 at 7:49 pm
    Reply

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