• Danny Wiser

DR CONGO: Emotion - Papa Wemba

On the verge of perfection - but is Wemba let down by a Western production team?

Papa Wemba’s decision to release an album with such an international sound, as he collaborated with Brit-pop producer of New Order and Pet Shop Boys fame Stephen Hague, was clearly a success. The Zairean expat was initially reported to be dubious about African-western pop crossover as he had never previously released such kind of music. Whilst his doubts did not really come to manifest themselves, the record itself is, in my opinion, inconsistent and Wemba demonstrates that he was perhaps much better-suited to some styles than others.

“...the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as he proves that he can easily transition from a legitimate disco frontman into someone who sounds authentically pained by the lyrics he is singing.”

Apart from Wemba’s obvious charisma and showmanship which can rather impressively be heard at points on the album, much like someone listening to James Brown could detect, Wemba’s main quality is his voice. There are numerous tracks where the balance struck between himself and the wonderful female backing singers, Anne Papiri and Julia Sarr, seems to be inverted as their powerful vocals often take centre stage. Examples of this are the song that is to my mind head and shoulders above the rest, Yolele, as well as the gospel-esque track Show Me The Way. The opening track does not only feature beautiful harmonising between Wemba and the backing singers, but is also so catchy and kicks off with an epic funky bass sound.


However, Wemba’s voice shines the most when the instrumentation is stripped back in the albums two ballads - Rail On and Awa Y’Okeyi. His vocals are stunningly beautiful in both of these tracks and because of the less chaotic musical composition, nothing else detracts from it. After listening to these songs several times, it came as little surprise to discover that his mother was “a pleureuse” (professional mourner, who would cry and sing at funerals). It is clear on songs like these that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as he proves that he can easily transition from a legitimate disco frontman into someone who sounds authentically pained by the lyrics he is singing. Yet, it is not just on the more acoustic tracks where Wemba’s vocals impress. Image, an uplifting tune that sounds like it could be pulled off the Lion King soundtrack and is full of busy instrumentation, sees Wemba show-off a high-pitch voice which is hauntingly similar to mbalax star Youssou N’Dour’s unique sound.


Before I go on to critique some aspects of the album, I can lay on some more praise about the album when it veers more towards the African side. Singing for the most part in his mother tongue, Lingala, rather than inauthentic ally appealing to the masses in French or English, Wemba tackles some important themes. Epelo, which to the untrained ear might sound like it contains a salsa beat is actually the most African of all as it is the most soukous laden track. Despite sounding like an upbeat rumba track, Wemba addresses the serious issues of racism in his lyrics. A translation of some of his lyrics reads as follows:


I don’t want to be traded Because I have no price If the world is invaded by hatred It’s because we are surrounded by water I don’t want to be laughed at Black men have black skin But their brains are not black.”


The decision to accompany difficult subject matter with a tune that seems to contrast it, is one that he makes on several occasions. For example, the catchy and fast-paced Sala Keba serves as a warning about the dangers in the world, whilst the uplifting gospel-style final track Ah Ouais is a song containing lyrics of heartbreak that are anything but optimistic. Despite contradictions and confusion, I have no problem with these types of juxtapositions. If anything, it makes an inherently fun album somewhat more interesting.


What I do have a problem with, however, are some of the more Western sounding attempts which quite frankly I fail to enjoy. Mandola which is a rocket-fuelled dance tune, filled with synths and drum machines that create an almost techno beat, for my money does not work. This, however, is nowhere as nearly as jarring as Shofele which I would say is genuinely a little bit amateurish, especially in comparison to the rest of the album. Furthermore, whilst I love the decision to cover Otis Redding’s Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),the music was not too distinct from the original, unlike for example Laetitia Zonzambé’s cover of the same song, and I would have liked Wemba and friends to have done more with it. However, despite all of these points, it could be argued that I am merely nit-picking at what separates this from being a great album to being perfect album. There is so much enjoyment to be had and a lot of beauty to be admired. Whilst I prefer the more African aspects to this album, I totally understand why Wemba wished to appeal to a more global market and in his defence, the best track Yolele is certainly a fusion between the two. If you want to check out more of Wemba’s work I would direct you to Maria Valencia and Le Voyageur, two songs added as bonus tracks to the 25th anniversary edition of the album back in 2020.