Tuesday, September 7

Papa Wemba and the Safeurs

Just yesterday I was doing a spot of catch up on TV bits and pieces I had videoed but had yet to check out, and spent an entertaining hour watching a documentary about La SAFE, or the Safeurs - a group of Congolese exiles living mainly in either Brussels or Paris.

The Safeurs take their name from the French slang for clobber, or gear, and their thing is exactly that: dressing up in fuck-off expensive clothes. They may well live in a room in a hostel, but they hustle the streets and, when they've accrued enough money, spend it mostly on designer threads. How expensive are we talking? €5000 for a jacket. More than once in the documentary the cry went up within a group of them: "Cavalli! Roberto Cavalli!" (A top Italian designer, in case you were wondering. And while I'm here I can't resist sneaking in that these guys are the guys buying the animalistic coloured fabrics that keep the likes of Donatella Versace furred in cocaine.)

These Safeurs had self-aggrandizing street monickers such as the "Archbishop", and the "Anti-gigolo", but there was no doubt as to who they all bowed down to: Papa Wemba.

He really is their Papa, combining the roles of entrepreneur cum mentor cum emperor. As the actual founder of La SAFE, he has encouraged (by his actions and songs) scores of young Congolese to flee their war-torn homeland, and their first destination is usually that of the colonial patriarch, Belgium. And thence, we can suppose, to the French-speaking world's matriarch: Paris.

Papa serves as their spiritual father too, having found the Lord in a big way. At times he is seen, in the role of adviser, to question - and denounce - the desire for wordly goods: but this is approached abstractly; there is no reflection on the Safeur's borderline absurd pursuit of luxury items. And, of course, in walking the walk and talking the talk the Safeurs in Brussels and Paris have issues with one another ... on top of the sadly predictable problems.

A touching moment in the documentary is when a young Congolese reflects that Europe is perhaps not the Holy Grail that Papa has painted it to be. And a telling point made by another is that job opportunities are so limited - basically levelling out at washing dishes - that in order to get any decent amount of money he has had to become a street hustler. This hustling remains undefined, and though it can be said that the chosen look of the safeur is at times a cartoon of your stereotypical pimp, that doesn't mean that's what they all do.

(I remember seeing a French cinema verite movie of the 90s called Pigalle - and if that was even half-accurate in its presumptions then the Parisian pimp racket is, unsurprisingly, not one you casually strut your way into.)

The scandal involving illegal immigration via Papa's band was ongoing at the time the programme was made; and this news of a fresh trial is not unexpected. Do I think he's guilty? Yes.

Though his own home was a modest one in the suburbs of Paris, Papa's own clothing needs - and the usual unusual entourage expenses - clearly necessitates a large flow of cash. And as much as he rattles out his records (he was filmed recording what I think was his 55th album, some of which reflected a recent spell in prison resulting from these self-same charges) you can't help but feel that he's a guy who can't turn down the chance to make a buck.

One amusing segment of the documentary was the process of tributes - whereby for a certain, though unfixed amount of money Papa would mention you in a song.* Within the Safeurs, this was clearly akin to a papal blessing. And if the money isn't right, you can forget it, as the "Archbishop" discovered.

If all this sounds like I'm bashing Papa on the head, then I apologise. For one thing, I'm definitely going to check out some of his music. And, though he's had his downs, and I guess he's requested to do this, do that and deal with several kinds of shit every waking minute of his day, like another larger-than-life African superstar Fela Kuti he's had a pretty good crack at life, hasn't he?

* And let's not forget that such stuff is part of the lingua franca of the music business. For instance, the reason why Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On has such a muddy sound is that in return for sexual favours he kept inviting girls to contribute backing vocals, which were then wiped the next day ... clearing the way for that night's shenanigans.

ADDENDUM: nosing around as I do I came upon Resonance FM (see BOAT DRINKS list for link) which has a show dedicated to the music of the Congo on each Saturday at 1330 GMT. So I'll be checking that out pronto. Furthermore, that site has a link within it to lots of stuff about Papa Wemba and La SAPE. Enjoy.

Link

posted by DD @ 09:42 

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