Culture Minister Baudouin Banza Mukalay confirmed the musician’s death Sunday, calling it a “great loss for the country and all of Africa.”
Footage from the concert in Ivory Coast shows his fellow performers rushing to his side as he collapsed in front of thousands of fans. He was taken to a nearby clinic, but couldn’t be resuscitated. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known.
“It is a great loss for Congo and for all of Africa,” Congo’s cultural minister said. “He was a self-made man, a role model for Congolese youth.”
The musician, whose real name was Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, rose to fame in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa during the 1970s with the band Zaiko Langa Langa, whose guitar-based fusion of Latin and African dance styles inspired a generation of African musicians.
With a new band, Viva La Musica, Wemba moved to Paris in the 1980s and helped popularize Congolese music beyond Africa. He toured in the 1990s with British rock star Peter Gabriel and appears on his “Secret World Live” album.
Wemba also was a pioneer of the “sapeur” youth culture marked by its dedication to extravagant fashions. The young men are known for wearing stylish suits and fedora hats, standing out in stark contrast in countries where poverty is endemic.
In 2003, Wemba spent more than three months in jail after French and Belgian authorities accused him of helping Congolese immigrants illegally obtain visas by passing them off as musicians working with him on European shows. Wemba, who later received a suspended sentence, maintained that others had done so using his name.
Wemba had appeared to be in good health just days earlier when he met with journalists at the beginning of the music festival. Fans across Abidjan were mourning news of his death Sunday.
“My sadness is great — I wonder how such a wonderful artist can die before such a large audience,” said Mariam Cisse, 32, who lives in Anoumabo where the festival was being held.