PAPA WEMBA / “Papa Wemba Mixtape”
Sometimes clothes are more than a fashion statement. Sometimes music is more than just what it sounds like. Papa Wemba is that sometimes.
I am from New Orleans. I do not speak French nor Lingala nor any of the other Congo languages. But I have drummed and danced in Congo Square. So while I do not know, I understand. You feel me?
Sometimes our resistance seems like foolishness. Our affirmations seem bizarre. Our humanity seems unnatural. When you are born poor and African (which too often is one and the same), every minute of your life is a sometimes.
There is a documentary done by a man and a woman, a black and a white: The Importance Of Being Elegant by George Ampnsah and Cosima Spencer. Using the music and fashion sense of Papa Wemba as the focus, the movie delves into the Sapeur movement.
BBC Four: As your documentary shows, the members of La Sape are fiercely devoted to designer clothes. Could you elaborate on the symbolic importance of high fashion for the sapeur?
George: The Sape emerged from the chaos that was the Congo during the reign of Mobutu. It was really one way of coping with a society that had broken down. For a young person growing up at that time, there wasn’t much to grasp hold of to help you feel better about yourself. Politics was out, so you found a lot of cargo cult religions in the Congo. The Sape is essentially one of these. The distinctive look of the sapeurs was also a rebellion against one of Mobutu’s dictatorial decrees, which was that everyone was expected to dress in a very traditional, standard African costume – the abacost.
Cosima: The sapeurs in Paris and Brussels are using these European status symbols not to integrate into European society but to ‘be someone’ back home in the Congo. This separates them from European fashionistas. They aren’t so much concerned with proving anything to the outside world but rather to one another, among their own community. These people have grown up with no kind of social structure to rely on. The Sape is a mini-state providing its own social strata: president, ministers, acolytes and so on.
BBC Four: There’s a lot of posturing among the sapeurs in the film.
George: That’s part of the ideology of the Sape. It’s all about self-aggrandisement, that’s the sapeur way. What’s interesting about these guys is that on the one hand they’re very much about showing off and about being seen – it’s the cult of appearance – but on the other hand there’s a clandestine element too because there is so much going on that’s on the margins of the law and of society. It’s a constant dichotomy.
Cosima: That self-aggrandizement enables them to escape and feel good about themselves. It’s serious positive thinking, you know? We came back from the shoot without having translated everything that we had filmed and it took us about a month to find the right translator who could understand all of their slang. When we did, there were whole new discoveries. Take Anti-Gigolo, who was always boasting that he was Papa Wemba’s closest friend. It wasn’t until we came back and translated the meeting between him and Papa Wemba that we realised that no, he was not Papa Wemba’s favourite after all. The fact that we didn’t speak Congolese might have hindered our access to the underground world but it also enabled us to film things they didn’t think we’d be able to understand or wouldn’t bother translating. So it protected us in a way.
BBC Four: Watching the film I was struck by the similarities with the US hip hop scene, specifically the sapeurs’ love for designer labels, the names they choose for themselves, the jet set lifestyle to which they aspire and especially the rivalry between sapeurs in Brussels and those in Paris.
George: We started the film with that as a focus point because there’s actually a rivalry between Papa Wemba and another Congolese musician with his own group of supporters. We were told that comparisons could be made with the Biggie/Tupac relationship. It’s true that there is an element of gang warfare to the Sape but the difference is that there is no bloodshed. It was explained to us by sapeurs themselves that resorting to violence just isn’t elegant. If you can’t let your clothes do the fighting then you’re not even to be considered a sapeur.
—BBC Filmmakers Interview
And here is a short review of the documentary written by Patty Chang who gives valuable background information.
A Matter of Style
by Patty Chang
Among the noteworthy films featured this year at the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center was George Amponsah and Cosima Spender’s documentary, The Importance of Being Elegant, which examines the Congolese subculture centered around the worship of clothes (kitende) known as la Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (the Society of Revelers and Elegant People), or in short, la Sape. The film follows internationally renowned Congolese soukous musician, Papa Wemba (né Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) and his coterie of expatriate Congolese supporters in Paris and Brussels shortly after his release on bail in 2003 on charges of importing 350 illegal immigrants (at a little over US$4000 per person) to pose as members of his band. Beset with legal fees and an impending criminal trial, Papa Wemba records a new album and prepares to launch an extravagant concert in Paris to try to piece his life back together and uphold his central position in the expatriate Congolese community. In the meantime, young immigrant Congolese in Paris and Brussels who embrace the sapeur lifestyle, ‘battle’ each other for the title of “Parisien”—the equivalent of an exceedingly stylish man—by flashing their labels in ritual dances in night clubs and mounting challenges through preening displays of label versus label. They also pay an exorbitant price for a “dedication” or the singing of their names by Wemba into his new album.
As the quintessential king of the sapeurs, Papa Wemba found commercial success in the 1970s through the innovative style of fusing traditional Congolese rumba with Western pop and rock influences. His new found critical acclaim became his ticket out of his native Zaire. Along with a number of other Lingala musical superstars, Papa Wemba started a new life abroad in Paris, touring Japan and the US via Europe with Peter Gabriel, and returning home to Kinshasa occasionally to perform for his doting fans. Dressed in expensive designer labels, Papa Wemba elevated style to a form of religion, replete with high priests, archbishops, popes, and even saints (in this case, Cavalli, Versace, Gautier, Burberry, Comme de Garçons, Yamamoto, Miyake, and Watanabe). His worship of designer labels (or griffes) and the musical lyrics which praise them, entice impoverished Congolese young men to take the oneiric pilgrimage to France and Belgium to acquire designer clothes, and eventually to return home with the hopes of an improved social standing. The turbulent political and socio-economic history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with its widespread poverty and 5.4 million excess deaths from the Second Congo War, sets a brutally sardonic backdrop for these young men who desire to escape from the harsh realities of Kinshasa only to end up enduring an increasingly harsh existence when they reach the streets of Château Rouge in Paris or the district of Ixelles in Brussels. Often without the legal documents to stay in the country, the sapeurs beg, steal, and hustle (although the specifics of these illicit activities remain ambiguous in the film) for money to be able to afford the designer clothes to keep up with Papa Wemba’s fashion ideology. In the documentary, one such sapeur named the “Archbishop” attempts to establish a name for himself in the Parisian Sape scene only to later come to the realization that the extravagant and flamboyant lifestyle has been nothing more than an illusion.
Watching this documentary, it’s unavoidable to draw parallels to the image of ‘bling-bling’ culture propagated by new school hip hop. The projection of cool by emulating the conspicuous consumption of elites, and the impersonation of success and fashionability, rather than the projection of a sense of depravation are traits shared by both subcultures. Indeed, Amponsah and Spender seem more inclined to portray the phenomenon of la Sape in a similar vein to the glorification of material excess found in hip hop culture. The inherent paradoxes of poor unemployed urban youths who hustle to be able to wear designer duds or footage of Papa Wemba trying on garish fur coats by Cavalli, all seem to confirm this. Yet, la Sape has a history that is far older than this documentary suggests. Originating in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1930s, the movement’s inspiration (though often disputed) draws reference from the archetypal dandies of modernity as well as Western films of the 1940s and 1950s, especially those of mobster, black and white thrillers, and the Three Musketeers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville were mainly composed of lower middle class young men, high school drop outs, and later, disenfranchised youths. Observing a strict three color rule, their austere elegance became a method to cope with colonialist hegemony and assimilation policies, as well as a way of subversion and resistance. In addition, the acronym la Sape plays on the French term for clothing and points to the fascination with their colonizers. The sapeurs of Brazzaville preached a conservative style that focused on cleanliness and absence from using hard drugs. Through the cultivation of clothes, they sought to define their social distinctiveness while deriving pleasure in admiring themselves, somewhat akin to what Pierre Bourdieu has called a ‘strategy of self-representation’. Fashion became a symbolic gesture of reclaiming power in times of economic deprivation and attempts at political dominance. In some instances, it proved a man could be a master of his own fate. Some authors have remarked that the sapeurs concealed their social failure through the presentation of self and the transformation of it into an apparent victory.
The outward display of self was an important aspect of colonial society. Sapeurs understood how crucial it was to assert (affirmer) oneself and make an elaborate entrance (débarquer). Even the sapeur’s walk was an individualized form of art. Young men would taunt the crowd with their diffidence and then saunter the length of the stage, head held high, shoulders rolling, displaying their clothes. The spread of la Sape across the river to Zaire in the 1970s went in tandem with the explosion of lingala music on the international scene. It was driven by urban elites who had been abroad, who could tell apart their Yamamoto from their Montana, and an unstructured jackets from a deconstructed suit. As bands began to sign recording contracts in France and Belgium, they would often return home to Kinshasa with suitcases filled with designer labels. Fans of rival bands competed with each other to see who looked the coolest. Similar to other movements that derived their distinctive looks through their association with popular music (e.g. Mods, Punks, and New Romantics), the sapeurs during the post-colonial era re-appropriated big-name European designers and absorbed it into their own inimitable style. The sapeurs in Kinshasa were more flamboyant and exaggerated in their style than their brothers in Brazzaville, fashioning themselves in vibrant prints and exuberant layers of colors. At the same time, from the late 1970s onward, the economic crisis that rocked Zaire meant that few men could affirm their masculinity through consumption. During the Mobutu years, anything associated with Western culture was outlawed in a state-sponsored drive for “authenticity”. The abacost became the official uniform mandated by the Mobutu regime, the origin of the word derived from the French saying for “down with the suit” (à bas le costume). Moreover, foreign music was banned from the local radio stations, propelling Papa Wemba and his band to seek out a musical language that was neither derivative nor tradition-bound. His embrace of la Sape was also a direct (albeit unwittingly) political reaction to authoritarian dictates over public appearance. The movement of la Sape was distinctly “unauthentic” since it provided the opportunity to subvert the established modes and reject accepted norms.
Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba was born in 1949 in the Kasai Oriental Province of the then Democratic Republic of the Congo. Papa Wemba is widely acclaimed as one of the most important modern Congolese musicians as both a vocalist and as a band leader whose work modernized popular music in the Congo.
The Congo—aka Zaire during the reign of Mobutu—is widely known as the site of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which many, many high school students are required to read. Rather than Congo, the country, I think the true heart of darkness is the heart and soul of European colonialists. Conrad’s novel barely addresses the Africans as human beings but dwells extensively on the motivations and thoughts of the explorers and exploiters of the Congo.
During the colonial period, the Congo was also referred to as the Belgian Congo. All of this historical background may seem to be only indirectly necessary to explain Papa Wemba’s music, but without a basic understanding of the background one is completely adrift in any attempt to fully appreciate Papa Wemba and his contemporaries.
This is the music of a frown turned upside down (or actually, more precisely, a down-turned frown turned smile side up). To hear and dance to this infectious music that sounds simultaneously Latin (mainly Cuban) and West African is to experience silent politics presented as joyous song by people who are super-exploited and callously oppressed. The country is one of the most mineral rich locations on the face of the earth and at the same time one of the most impoverished nations today. For over two hundred years the Congo has been the footstool and soft cushion for ruthless men with money and guns.
It is only recently with songs such as “Esclave” (“Slave”) and “Show Me The Way” (about the exploitative mining industry) that Papa Wemba has offered overt political themes. Ironically, Wemba’s major impact has been through introducing outside elements into what was a closed society kept isolated from global influences by exploiters both native and foreign who wanted to maintain absolute control of the Congolese people.
So what is seen as a sellout in other contexts becomes a major push to oppose the powers that be by standing aesthetics on its head. Introducing so-called foreign elements became a focal point of liberation rather than a mark of subordination to whites.
When I heard Papa Wemba sing Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)” I was duly influenced to listen more closely to music I had previously thought of simply as Soukous, the popular music of the Congo. I know now that embracing the outside was a metaphorical way to escape the plantation. Wemba was aurally a runaway.
There is much more to say than this, but I think this will suffice as an introduction to one of the major voices of Central Africa. Papa Wemba’s soaring tenor is a singular sound whose closest analogue to my ears would be Senegal’s Youssou N’dour. Perhaps, the Wemba/N’dour similarity is a legacy of French colonialism mixed with African aesthetics, or perhaps not.
The selections are taken from five albums. Mwana Molokai and Best Of Papa Wemba are from the earlier years of Wemba’s career. Molokai refers to the “village” Kinshasa neighborhood where Wemba was considered the de factor mayor. In the middle period of his career Wemba moved to France. In fact, he even maintained two different bands, one in the Congo and one in Paris. The album Papa Wemba (1988) is interesting as it represents a re-recording of songs from earlier in Wemba career.
Most of Papa Wemba, the album, was recorded in Paris but some tracks were recorded in the Congo and the tapes sent to Paris where Wemba put his vocals on top.
When I started out we basically worked under live conditions in the studio. But these days musical programming has come to play an increasing role in the studio. I’m trying to adapt to the new technology – that’s what’s in fashion now and I can’t afford to ignore it!
How to move forward is a perplexing problem. There are neither clear nor easy pathways. This is not just a struggle in the sphere of music, but also the same struggle in other areas of life. As humans we have no choice. Time, our lives, everything goes forward. The only thing that goes backwards is shit—literally.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
The Papa Wemba Mixtape Playlist
This entry was posted on Monday, October 19th, 2009 at 12:23 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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