“There is too much materialism in the world…everyone is focused on big house, big car, beautiful expensive clothes.”
Most musicians live flashy lifestyles but Congolese musicians really live it up and thus this statement that Papa Wemba makes on his way to church holding two young boys and looking quite the deeply religious man half way into a film where he is the star made everyone watching the film at the Alliance auditorium spontaneously burst into laughter.
The film ‘The Importance of being elegant, focus on Papa Wemba’ is intense.
It captures a variety of issues and makes one pause to think. There is laughter but like the film which is shot in a grainy style there are issues which tug at the heart and not in a pleasant way.
Papa Wemba was a legendary Congolese musician. He started off with the influential Congolese band Zaiko Langa Langa in the 1960s, had a stint with Afrisa International before founding his own band Viva La Musica in the early 1980s. One of his songwriters was Antoine Agbepa now internationally known as Koffi Olomide, a star in his own right.
The film was not about Papa Wemba the musician but rather Papa Wemba as the Patron of the Sapeurs and the effect, the ‘religion’ of Le Sape has had on a generation.
Congolese men have cut a niche for themselves across Africa and Europe as men who put in the effort in dressing up and looking good. Sapeurs under the stewardship of Papa Wemba have taken this to a different level and the effort and expense put in dressing well and expensively is stunning. By the way Le Sape loosely translates to “Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People”.
One of the characters in the film is Archbishop who is sapeur living in Paris. Archbishop travelled to Paris in 2001 leaving behind a well-paying sales job in Kinshasa after being inspired by Papa Wemba. After 16 years in Europe Archbishop still has no papers and has to keep renewing his temporary refuge status as he tries to get political asylum. As he eats a meal of bread and soup the Archbishop gives a damming indictment on the influence of Papa Wemba.
“We live in France but Papa Wemba is the president of an invisible country, Le Sape. How? How is a musician more important than the president of a country? Politicians are manipulators. That is how they get what they want. Papa Wemba is the biggest manipulator.”
Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the resource richest countries in the world but colonialism under Belgium, dictatorship under Mobutu and uncertainty after his toppling has left DRC divided and many Congolese living in abject poverty.
Thus being a sapeur is as much a quest to be a dandy as a quest for identity, a sense of belonging and a brotherhood. One would go as far as to say being a sapeur is a religion and Papa Wemba was the god.
Papa Wemba was accused of being involved with a network that allegedly smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants from DRC to Europe. He was arrested, spent a couple of months in jail in Paris before being released on bail.
After his release, Papa Wemba became deeply religious. To those watching the film his religious views were in sharp contrast to his lifestyle.
At one moment he is clubbing in Paris where he was based and in the middle of drinks he preaches to his crew telling them about Jesus and how they do not need to change from the drinks, drugs, women and the good life but just take five minutes to commune with God daily.
Sapeurs in Africa and abroad are men (and women) who do menial jobs to make ends meet. Lack of education and papers makes them to operate below the radar living on the fringes of society. This however does not stop them from living it up fashion-wise. A coat for 8,000 euros (Ksh. 990,000) is a normal purchase for a sapeur. This means that forays into the illegal side happens to sustain this lifestyle.
Another character in the film is Anti-gigolo a sapeur in Brussels. He was given the name by Papa Wemba due to his monogamous lifestyle in Kinshasa. Interestingly he now lives in Brussels but on a visit to Paris he and his boys drive into the red light district checking out the Congolese ladies on display in the shop windows. Anti-gigolo delves into a monologue of how these ladies from Kinshasa have being cheated to come abroad and now sell themselves to sustain a fancy lifestyle.
Songs for pay is another theme addressed in the film. Called dedication and done by musicians across many genres dedication becomes sinister when people around Papa Wemba sell the dedications informing interested parties of their ability to have access to Papa Wemba.
With too many dedications and too little time in the songs, the hangers-on end up not delivering on their deals. This leads to Papa Wemba’s personal bodyguard nicknamed Poison to chasing hangers-on from the studio. Then he asks Papa Wemba to give him a mention but not as Poison but as ‘KGB Protector Number One.’ Cue more laughter at the irony.
Not that Papa Wemba minds the trade, he is also making money of it with a sound man stating how even cars are given for dedications. In a conversation with a woman who wants to be mentioned in one of Papa Wemba’s songs, the woman tells Papa Wemba that she can steal clothes, shoes and perfume and that can be payment.
Papa Wemba asks her to also steal underwear because he hates it when he undresses a beautiful girl and she has torn underwear. This as his wife who cuts a matronly figure prepares dinner for her husband.
Religion and a decadent lifestyle. Migration and immigration. Running away from poverty in DRC to wallow in poverty abroad. Guys working in menial jobs yet spending money like kings. A quest for identity turning into a cult following. Music as art and also a cheap base commodity. Inspiring and manipulating.
Elegant contradictions that live together side by side until they become the norm and one is totally thrown off when light is shone on the contradictions.