|Papa Wemba was born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in the Kasai region of the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo) on 14th June 1949. The Kasai district is the homeland of Wemba's extended family or tribe (Tetela) and, from an early age, the young child was taught that he was directly descended from a long line of BaTetela warrior chieftains.
When he was six years old, the family moved to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. His mother's profession was as a 'pleureuse' (a professional female mourner at funeral wakes called Matanga, where she was employed to sing to the dead). As a small child Wemba would often accompany his mother to Matanga, watching her work. Through these experiences Wemba gained his first knowledge of music, and to this day, he acknowledges it to have been one of the main influences on his future career. His mother died in 1973 and, paying tribute to her in interview, he has said "If mother was still alive, I would be rich in words and rich in melodies. She was my first teacher and my first audience."
After the earlier death of his father in 1966, Wemba began a career in music, first becoming involved with the local Roman Catholic church, St Joseph's, where he sang in the choir. Although Wemba stopped playing religious music when he left the church in the late 1960s, he claims that even today religious music plays an important part in his songwriting process. "When I started singing pop music, I left religious music completely," he has said, "but there was always an influence of religious music on my voice because, with religious music, the minor key always recurs. When I compose my songs I often use the minor key."
By 1969 Wemba had progressed to co-founding one of the country's top youth orchestras, Zaïko Langa Langa. Due to his love of American R&B music and its associated singing style, which Wemba often imitated, he also gained the nickname 'Presley' from his Zaïko colleagues and became known as Jules Shungu 'Presley' Wembadio.
In the 1970s, Zaire underwent huge social change as a result of President Mobutu (formerly Joseph Desire Mobutu) Sese Seko's campaign of Authenticity, which began to take effect during 1971. During this period, Mobutu asked all Zairian citizens to return to their national Zairian identity. This lead to the dropping of European-styled Christian names, the banning on state radio and in clubs of imported music, and the outlawing of European modes of dress. It also lead to Wemba losing the Christian name Jules, and the nickname 'Presley', which may not have been such a bad thing.
It was also directly because of Authenticity that the new sound of Zaïko Langa Langa and their musical contemporaries was able to flourish. From 1971, Zaïko Langa Langa had set the standard for a new wave of Zairian popular musical culture, and the impact they achieved through the ferocity and power of their music can be considered similar to that of the Sex Pistols on the British music scene some years later.
Wemba recalls Zaïko and Authenticity. "Our heads were full, full of ideas and our new direction evolved," he remembers. "We rejected wind instruments. We decided not just to have one lead singer. We wanted a group of singers two, three, four, five or even six singers, all singing at the same time with different harmonies and chants. Also Zairian students, studying in Belgium, had already introduced a stripped-down sound using electric instruments and the drum kit into the music. That was our starting point. We were criticised by our elders because we didn't follow the rules, we upset them 'cause we did our own thing. It was rebellious, like all of the best pop music, it was rebellion."
Zaïko Langa Langa's sound was radically different from their competitors, and during the years preceding full-blown Authenticity, marked by the introduction of 'Zairianisation' in 1974, the band achieved huge success, most notably through their dances, 'N'gwabin' and 'Cavacha', and a string of hit songs including Wemba's early compositions, 'Pauline', 'C'est La Vérité', 'Chouchouna' and 'Liwa Ya Somo' among others.
As the status of the young Zaïko grew, so did its musician's egos and, after internal disagreements, Wemba and several front-line colleagues left Zaïko in the Autumn of 1974. Two brief but successful musical projects (Isifi Lokole and later Yoka Lokole, formed in autumn 1975) followed before Wemba formed his own orchestra - Viva La Musica - in early 1977.
(L-R: Dindo Yogo, Papa Wemba, Nyoka Longo, Bozi Boziana, Lengi Lenga)