Papa, leave the fluff alone!

March 15, 1995

Papa Wemba
Realworld through Larrikin Entertainment
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Released to coincide with Papa Wemba's appearances at the Womadelaide festival and other capitals, Emotion will come as bit of a disappointment for those who caught his concerts.

The difference between the Paris-based Zairean star live and his studio efforts were stark on March 3 when, despite the appalling acoustics of the Sydney Town Hall, his music made a crowd of more than 1000 world music fiends dance maniacally. They were well and truly loosened up by Cuba's wonderful Sierra Maestra.

With his 10-piece band, Wemba played material aimed squarely at recent converts from the cool urban dance club/acid jazz scene, but it emphasised the groove of Zairean soukous — the magic fusion of '50s Afro-Cuban rumba with traditional Congolese rhythms — rather than the studio processed hyper-BPMs and over-the-top synth lines that seem to be mandatory in the trendy clubs these days. Wemba mixed these more recent lightweight numbers with a good helping of the rootsier soukous that dedicated followers of African music crave.

Emotion leans too much towards these fluffy club beats. Saying this certainly does not imply I agree with the growing army of "ethno-purists" who demand that African popular music forgo "western" influences and "western" technology in the name of authenticity. Such a narrow view ignores the actual process of development of African pop music in this century as a perpetual and dynamic interaction between the music of Africa, the African diaspora in North America, the Caribbean and Europe, and "western" pop music, itself deeply influenced by the music of Africa.

Where Emotion disappoints is in beginning to head in the direction — and it is only a tendency — of sacrificing what makes contemporary African pop music fresh and vibrant for the formulas of mass-produced corporate pop.

That said, Emotion is a good record. It maintains the Zairean vibe and is enjoyable despite most uptempo tracks being lumbered with techno intros that verge on appalling in some instances. But just as you are about to give up on a track, Wemba's sweet soul voice and the unmistakable soukous rhythm kick in to save the day.

Wemba's voice is highlighted in the slower laments with wonderfully quaint lyrics, sung in the Lingala language. In "Mandola", he sings: "How could you abandon me in the house/ When it caught fire?/ You have shown me that you are hard-hearted/ The whole village fled/ And you didn't wake me up!" Well, wouldn't you be upset?

Unlike many who sing the blues, Wemba doesn't seek revenge when love fails. He sings in "Rail On": "Who will I spend the night with/ Because you have left?/ I am full of sorrow/ And I don't know what to do/ If the path you've taken is a good one, go/ If you think you are going to succeed/ Go my sister ..."

The album version of the Otis Redding classic "(Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa) Sad Song" is rather lame compared to the exciting live version we heard in Sydney. Those familiar with the original can't help but notice the absence of the vital horn section on the record. When Wemba sings in English, his voice also loses that attractive raw edge it has when he sings in his own language.

Let's hope that Papa Wemba does not continue in the direction hinted at by Emotion. Recent albums by Youssou N'Dour and Baba Maal prove that African artists do not have to go the route of the lowest common denominator to win a world audience.

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