Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Papa Wemba

  • L'Esclave [Gitta, 1988] A
  • Le Voyageur [EarthBeat, 1992] Neither
  • Emotion [RealWorld, 1995] A-
  • M'zée Fula-Ngenge [Sonodisc, 1999] A-
  • 1977-1997 [Sterns Africa, 2004] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

L'Esclave [Gitta, 1988]
Wemba is probably the most famous and certainly the most flamboyant of the many graduates of Zaiko Langa Langa, the band that turned rumba into soukous with hard guitar and traditional rhythms and structures in the early '70s. His high, harsh voice cuts like it's serrated, and the harmonies are almost acrid sometimes, just like Nguando Milos's lead guitar lines, which break away from the merely engaging competition both sonically and melodically. An admirer of the old discursive song forms, Wemba milks soukous's bipartite conventions for something very much like drama--more than once I've assumed a piece was ending only to have it break into a perfectly inevitable aftermath. Inspirational liner note: "La ville et le village: deux visages que j'aime!" A

Le Voyageur [EarthBeat, 1992] Neither

Emotion [RealWorld, 1995]
Ominously, this made-for-export enlists Jean-Philippe Rykiel, whose strange keyb technique--suggesting a cross between eternal transcendence and drowning grilled asparagus in Velveeta-melt--already permeates Keita's Soro and N'Dour's Wommat. But with the neofolkloric Lokua Kanza also on hand, its 11-tunes-in-38-minutes constitute the most appealing crossover Wemba has yet devised for the voice his hopes come down to. Piercing and penetrating without a hint of muezzin, he also commands a "natural," "conversational" timbre richer and rangier than that of his more soft-sung Zairean colleagues. A singer you should hear in a showcase you can find. A-

M'zée Fula-Ngenge [Sonodisc, 1999]
At his New York dates of the past few years, the soukous sapeur seemed both enervated and inflated by the labor of Anglophone crossover, and he puts out so many records in Paris that some doubt he can remember one from the other. But here, at greater length than on any '80s album, he rings in his 50th year with superabundant pizzazz. The new touch--there's generally a new touch--is a xylophone. The old touches are the now sweet, now rich, now cutting leads, the varisized choruses, the assured shifts of tempo and mood, the synths emulating flutes and horns and innerspring mattresses. In the right frame of mind, il reste toujours magnifique. A-

1977-1997 [Sterns Africa, 2004]
I know just two tracks of 18, both from import albums; most of the first disc began its life as seven-inch vinyl. But beyond Franco, who bought vocalists in bulk, no one in soukous amassed a catalog of this strength in the '80s, much less the '90s. The audio is shrill at first, and the lead track's guitar is as crude as it got in Zaire--but also, how rock and roll, as exciting. Always conscious of country and city, Wemba has been the rare African to hold his own with synthesizers, yet homes in on two village chants. He deploys manly shout, girlish falsetto, gritty tenor, and mellow midrange to describe, explain, celebrate, ululate, sigh, cajole, declare his love, and state the facts. And ever since Zaiko Langa Langa, he's led one hell of a band or another. A

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: Wemba is probably the most famous and certainly the most flamboyant of the many graduates of Zaiko Langa Langa, the band that turned rumba into soukous with hard guitar and traditional rhythms and structures in the early '70s. Motto: "La ville et le village: deux visages que j'aime!" His high, harsh voice cuts like it's serrated, and the harmonies are almost acrid sometimes, just like Nguando Milos's lead guitar lines, which break away from the merely engaging competition both sonically and melodically. An admirer of the old discursive song forms, Wemba milks soukous's bipartite conventions for something very much like drama. Unfortunately, his easiest-to-find record--Papa Wemba, on Stern's Africa--synths up songs I prefer electric, having first heard them on Belgian Gitta's L'Esclave, which was findable as 1990 began. Two import albums on Disques Esperance, Ekumani and (thanks a lot) Papa Wemba, are also recommended.

See Also