Franco From The Beginning

Franco & Le TPOK Jazz – Francophonic
Franco & Le TPOK Jazz

Francophonic (Stern’s Africa STCD3041-42, 2008)

Franco Luambo was certainly the greatest guitarist in all of Congolese music. As to whether he was the greatest guitarist ever to come out of Africa or the most popular African musician of all time, well, in terms of acclaim and how sought-after his music has been worldwide, it would be hard to argue with either proposition. Franco (1938-1989) was to guitar playing what Tabu Ley Rochereau was to singing: A music master, a style and trend setter, a cultural icon, an uncommonly gifted songwriter and a bandleader who guided others toward maximizing their musical potential.

Largely unschooled, Franco was a working musician by the age of 15 and co-leader of OK Jazz, one of the Belgian Congo’s most popular bands, before he was 20. In those pre-independence days, Congolese music was a Latin-flavored affair in which guitars took the lead and melodically translated tradition into modern terms. Independence in 1960 brought civil war but also a flourishing urban night life in which OK Jazz (under Franco’s eventual sole leadership) came to be known as the greatest band in the land. They largely retained that position through continued tumult, including the 1965 seizing of power by General Mobutu and the subsequent changing of the country’s name from the Congo to Zaire.

The evolution of the music played by Franco and OK Jazz paralleled the changing times, going from short, spry dance tunes to longer, more multifaceted pieces that sometimes had a mid-way jump in tempo (a foreshadowing of the later soukous style) while some songs swung in a more acoustic vein or took on outside influences like Western funk. Franco’s guitar style was as ever-expanding as his songwriting, which began to incorporate subtleties that pointed toward personal, satirical and political axes to grind as his popularity grew (not only throughout Africa but in Europe as well) and everybody wanted a piece of him. And though singing was not Franco’s strongest suit, his moody vocals provided an attention-grabbing contrast to the more accomplished singers in the ranks of OK Jazz (which at various times included such greats as Sam Mangwana.

Having recently released superb double CD sets highlighting the early output of Congolese legends Tabu Ley and M’bilia Bel, Stern’s Africa now does the same for Franco, whose music has long been in need of such a retrospective (particularly in the U.S., where he remains lesser known than many of his African peers). Francophonic is only part of the story, since the number of songs Franco recorded in the 27-year period represented here was almost countless. Still, it’s an indispensable sampling of some of his most enduring, creative and ambitious works.

Beginning with “Esengo ya Mokili,” a dance romp Franco recorded alongside singer Paul Dewayon in 1953 and ending on a rather abrasive note with 1980’s “Nalingaka yo yo te” (“I Don’t Like You”), the many moods of Franco are compressed into 2 ½ hours of genius that was always bright, often brooding and ever destined to be legendary. Packaged with a 48-page booklet that puts Franco’s life and art into context, the music here is a grandly satisfying excursion into the Congolese sound that Franco remained a master of during his own trials and those of his country. It’s a must-own for lovers of classic African music, and the second volume planned for later in 2009 promises to cover Franco’s final decade in similarly fine fashion.

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Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental
stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include
ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant
wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable
traits.

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