Echoes of Papa Wemba at Cercle Mayalos

You will find the ‘Cercle Mayalos’ slumbering somewhere on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Duck the grid-lock to judder down a potholed gravel track, dodge through a chaotic street market before dog-legging right via looming, rusted metal gates. The club and eponymous hotel is well past its prime, with paint peeling off the walls and half-full, scummy pools. Rather underwhelming, but I’m hoping the musician I’m meeting here will make up for the run-down and dilapidated surrounds.

And he certainly does. Bébe Wemba agreed to meet for an impromptu shoot, and personifies a new generation of Afro-Pop heroes. Francklin Otete is all flash and brash, overlayed with pure Nollywood vibes, from the Dior glasses to the Gucci accoutrements. But when he moves in behind the microphone, his vocalisation drips with the viscosity of warm honey.

In 2018, he was ‘The One’ who flew to Cote d’Ivoire to fill the boots of the great Papa Wemba, when the legendary artist passed away in 2018 while performing in Abidjan. Otete has since laid claim to the blend of rhumba and R&B so typical to this part of central Africa. The similarity in the voices are unmistakable, but he has since started honing his personal take on this Afro-Pop genre.

“Kojack, I want you to tell my story to the world”, he says as we stroll around the Cercle Mayalos club grounds. Rusted mini-trains and merry-go-rounds from the 1960s rust in pieces behind a sagging fence, like something out of a Looney Tunes 16mm film reel. He hauls a tiny plastic baggy from his pocket, and indicates his nose: “I must go and sniff this to make my voice, you know …”, and mimes ‘hitting the high notes’ with his hands.

“Don’t worry, this is medicíne naturale”, he laughs over his shoulder, before disappearing into one of the dark doors gaping in the elaborately tiled walls of the Mayonos Hotel. I wait, revelling in the weirdness permeating this parallel Congo universe … I mean, with this as the backdrop to a documentary script, what a mind-blowing story it will make?

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