Magic. Hip-swaying, smile-making, life-enhancing, butt-shaking, number one with a mango magic.
Paris-based Papa Wemba, the King of Congolese Rhumba, has been off the recording scene for almost three years, following some moments difficiles, as he puts it in the liner notes. Wemba was jailed for smuggling "illegal immigrants (ie. clan members without visas looking for a new start in life) into France, in the guise of band members.
New Morning is Wemba's first ever live album, recorded in the Parisian club of the same name back in February. It comes with a DVD of the gig, which is even more enjoyable than the spirit-boosting CD. Singing gorgeously arranged versions of some of his best-loved hits of the '90s and early '00smelodic, irresistibly body-rocking soukous, with a dash of salsa and two dashes of French popWemba fronts an outstanding quintet of young French-African musicians, augmented by two soulful and empathetic European backing singers.
It's somehow quite moving to see two foxy white women singing soukous in Lingala with such evident relish, looking and sounding like they were born to it. It's also immensely pleasing to witness Wemba's quietly authoritative, mesmerizing stage presence again. His performance suggests a slightly more physically demonstrative Muddy Waters when he too was in his fifties. Even at that age, Waters could declare "I'm a man, spelt m-a-n, I be ready for all you women in a moment's time and not look ridiculous. Wemba makes his body talk in the same way, and the life force is similarly infectious. (He also has the style to affect a dignified penitence for the embarrassment he caused his family by being jailedhence, I suspect, opening the set with 1998's "Excuse Me, sung unaccompanied, and titling and recording the album at New Morning).
Wemba first came to attention in 1970 as a founder member of the seminal Zairean punk-rhumba band, Zaiko Langa Langa. He left after less than a year to form Isife Lokole and, in 1974, Viva La Musica. With all three bands, his wailing high tenor voice cut through decades of cloying Kinshasa close-harmony singing, and with his electric guitar-toting musicians he dragged Congolese rhumba into the modern age.
Wemba's voice today is even more compelling than it was back then. It's still wonderfully rough-edged, but can melt to velvet. It sounds, as you'd expect, altogether more rounded and lived-in now, and has a greater range, moving with assurance between deep tenor and falsetto, and between the declamatory and the intimate. Wemba still punctuates his words with distinctive, guttural exclamations (and, occasionally, bird sounds)in a way reminiscent of Gregory Isaacs.
New Morning celebrates Papa Wemba's return to the boulevard, sounding as good as he did before those moments difficiles and with the promise of years more magic to come. Download all of it and beam yourself heavenward.