Openings: Papa Wemba, the late great legend of African music
He may have sold fewer records than Prince, but he probably swung more hips.
Papa Wemba was known abroad for bringing Congo's lilting rumbas into the global arena after blending them with frenetic guitar riffs and his own hauntingly high tenor. At home he was much more than a singer. Among other things he was the original "mikilist". Mokili means "the world" in Lingala — which for its lyrical expressiveness is the Italian of African languages. Mikili means Europe or the west. And mikilists were the Congolese who had "arrived", so to speak, in Paris, Brussels or London. There is a utopian element to the concept that has driven millions of young Congolese abroad in search of greener pastures and earnings to remit home. For much of the time that Papa Wemba was strutting the stage, almost anywhere could seem a greener pasture than Zaire, as Congo was formerly called.
His band, Viva la Musica, was the first to tour Europe in the early 1980s, when Zaire was on the brink of a long-drawn-out implosion that rumbles on like so many tropical thunderclouds to this day. He had made it in Kinshasa in the 1970s with his original formation, Zaiko Langa Langa. This took the languid, Cuban-inspired rumbas of the 1960s, stripped out the wind section and speeded up the rhythm, and with it the way people danced. Thus he pioneered soukous. Paris became a base and he began to make it in Europe — the king of mikilists.
On his returns to Kinshasa in the 1980s, he and his friend Colonel Jagger (named after the aforementioned Mick) brought with them a dress sense that set off another defining Congolese trend, the "Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elégantes" (Sape). This prescribed among young and impoverished Congolese the wearing of the latest Parisian chic. It was a way of maintaining self-esteem amid the economic hardships of the time and also a rebellion against the repressive Mobutu regime's ban on western clothes.
Underlying the fad was yet another uniquely Kinshasa concept, forged in the turmoil and decline that defined much of Mobutu Sese Seko's 32-year dictatorship: Article 15. This refers to an imagined clause in the national constitution amounting to "débrouillez-vous", or "help yourself because no one else will". By dressing beyond your means, you also established your status as an Article 15 talent.
For much of his career before it was attained, material success was suggested by the designer clothes that Papa Wemba wore. And that was a big part of his charisma. He had immense self-belief and was always ahead of the game.
Congo has long been a state in no more than name. But the Congolese have a national identity stronger than many more functional African nations, nurtured in large part by the country's music. Papa Wemba not only wrote much of that soundtrack. He also organised the costume department.
So while mourning Prince, who died just three days before, spare a thought for the king of Congolese rumba. He sold fewer records. But he probably swung more hips.
William Wallis is the FT's African affairs writer