Papa Wemba, 2012
By the time he recorded 'Emotion', his second album for Real World, Congolese band-leading legend Papa Wemba had made somewhere in the region of 25 records. This 1995 album marked something of a departure. Rather than being another instalment of his trademark high-octane soukous, 'Emotion' was an unashamed offering to the same international audience taking the likes of Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal to its hearts. Indeed, there's even a cover of Otis Redding's Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song). No problem, though. These are irresistibly crystal-clear melodies wrapped in the crispest, most modern production.
Original Sleeve Notes
In the autumn of '94 Paris-based Zairois, Papa Wemba, was deep in the recording of this album, 'Emotion', at Real World Studios. "Making this record gave me the shivers", declared Papa. "When I arrived in Paris to live and work, and aim my music at the international market, I remember Martin Messonier saying, 'if your first album fails, if your second album fails... you'd better make sure the third one is a success!' It's not that I'm afraid to sing - I've been singing for 25 years - but on this LP I've taken a totally different musical direction, so I'm a little afraid of the public's reaction. This is an emotional time, that's why I must call this album 'Emotion'."
Papa Wemba is clearly on a mission. He is building on the legacy of his innovative 1988 album 'Papa Wemba', which was recorded in collaboration with producer Martin Messonier, and the aptly titled 'Le Voyageur' album, which was released in Europe on Real World in '92. For Papa the real agenda lies in the dream of worldwide notoriety. To reach that international audience, artists like Papa Wemba must be willing to risk alienating the purists.
"My original group is there for my Zairean fans who come to hear typical African sounds," says Papa, "but when I decided to be a singer with an international name, I formed another group to appeal to a different public. I have never mixed the two since both of them represent different aspects of my musical personality. I believe they should remain separate because I am a singer who can follow more than one path. This is the third album in my adventure and it's very special to me."
On 'Emotion' Papa has renewed a working relationship with the acclaimed singer/songwriter Pascal Lokua Kanza. Papa explains; "Pascal's very talented. He was originally asked to work on the backing vocals and arrangements in general, however, he has become more of an advisor and guide for my singing parts. He has been a great help to me because he is also a singer and we share the same mother tongue". Papa has also hired keyboard player Jean Paul Rykiel, who played on Salif Keita's 'Soro' LP and more recently, Youssou N'Dour's 'Wommat'. Rykiel had contacted Papa after hearing 'Le Voyageur' and was a natural choice to collaborate on this album: "I thought of him immediately... he's a genius." Papa performs here without his usual backing vocalists Reddy Amisi and Stino - the harmonies are dealt with by two scintillating female vocalists. He has also recorded a cover of 'Sad Song' by Otis Redding, his favorite American singer, as a duet with soul diva Juliet Roberts.
The most fascinating decision is the appointment of producer Stephen Hague. Renowned for his work with Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and New Order, he has never worked with an African artists before and it was clear as we spoke that Papa was joyous at the results. On this LP, Papa Wemba's voice is heard as it has never been heard before; "I think Stephen understood from the beginning what I hoped to achieve with this album. He felt that the vocals were the most important part of each song and arranged the backing tracks in ways that would work best for my singing styles. Stephen, Pascal and I worked very hard on the vocals and took the time we needed to get the very best performances".
Papa Wemba's future lies with this voice. It's resonances reach deep inside, undoubtedly owing much to his mother - "a pleureuse", or professional mourner, who would cry and sing at funerals. Papa believes he inherited his mother's way of singing, and believes he would have become a griot or a jali had he stayed in the countryside, but instead he headed for the city and a life in the modern world. Nevertheless, Papa is a man linked to ancestors and to tradition and he will continue to sing in his first language, Lingala, rather than in French or English because it enables him to fully express the intensity of the lyrics and his emotions. He grins and admits, however, that on this LP he drops a few verses in English, "just to wink at the international market I'm aiming at."
Papa's musical roots were set down in 1969 when he and a posse of his contemporaries formed the group Zaiko Langa Langa. Like the youth in the rest of the world they were anxious for change and Zairean music experienced a total revolution. "We had been influenced by a lot of things - Afro-Cuban music, rock, rhythm and blues from the States, plus our own traditional rhythms. After 1960, when Zaire became independent, things changed. The period of President Mobuto's L'Authenticité helped us a lot musically because we went back to traditional music. On the radio there was no longer any foreign music. You couldn't listen to foreign music unless you bought a record or heard it in a night club.
"Our heads were full, full, full of ideas. Our new direction evolved. We rejected wind instruments. We decided not to have just one lead singer. We wanted a group of singers - 2,3,4,5 or even 6 singers, all singing at the same time with different animations and harmonies. Also, through the Zairean students studying in Belgium, when it was the Congo, they introduced electric instruments and the drum kit into the music. 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 pop music here, it was rebellion."
In 1977 he formed his own band Viva La Musica, so-named after a Johnny Pacheco charanga track. In the words of Papa it was the dawn of another revolution. "I introduced a traditional instrument, the lokolé, into the music. Lokolé is a hollow tree trunk which you hit with two sticks, an instrument used like a cordless phone to communicate between the villages. I brought a new language into the music, a new way to express ourselves."
Ironically one of the most of the significant decisions Papa Wemba made when initiating this group was not to do with the music but with style: "I decided to focus on the clothes - to be very well dressed". It was Papa Wemba who introduced the phenomenon of La Société des Ambienceurs et des Personnes d'Elegance (La Sape) and the youth of Zaire at home and abroad followed- "It gave us an identity.
"Today, when the press speaks about Papa Wemba, it's always La Sape. I don't want to dissociate myself from that because it's a look, a style, that I've created myself. I have an image, I maintain that I like to dress well, to be chic. But that doesn't mean I am a victim de la mode. No, no, no, I am not a slave of fashion, I am first and foremost a singer, not a 'sapeur'."
It also gave them an opening. It's precisely Papa's love of high quality, designer clothes from the likes of Takeo Kikuchi or Yohji Yamamoto to Gianni Versace that endeared him to the fashion conscious media worldwide and introduced him and his music to a new audience. Today, the quest is to elevate him beyond being tagged a "fashion play", to further extend his audience and ensure his musical longevity.
"When people talk about Papa Wemba, I don't want them to say I am an African singer, or a world music singer. I would like people to say just 'singer'. Because that's what I am. A singer. Full stop."
(notes by Paul Bradshaw)
- ...in terms of marrying precise, pop flash to an exuberant African (or, indeed, Latin) beat, this gets as close as almost anyone to the state of the art. Q Magazine (1995) (UK)
- ...on Emotion he rocks just as flamboyantly as ever. June 1995 Details (UK)
- Papa Wemba is not the first African artist to attempt to internationalize his sound... ...but hes the rare artist who pulls it off. Rolling Stone (1995) (USA)
- ..a selection of mouthwatering episodes...total emotional impact... May/June 1995 Vox (USA)
- A brilliant blast of crisp soukous... ...pop and dance rhythms that bounce off the stratosphere. CMJ (1995) (USA)
- ..the singing is awesome. Emotion is another major work from Papa and a step forward for personkind. Straight No Chaser (1995) (UK)
- ..the brightest, most accessible album of his formidable career. Wembas pure, melodic vocals positively shine. The Observer (1995) (UK)
- Hague...brings a fantastic clarity to Wembas complex mesh of harmonies and rhythms... 10 March 1995 Hull Daily Mail (UK)
- ..those who love Wemba for his heart-wrenching vocals and his highly personal pop instincts should find this his most fully realized non-soukous work to date. January 1995 Rhythm Music (UK)