End Times of the Grand Master

Franco and Le TPOK Jazz – Francophonic, Vol. 2: 1980-1989
Franco and Le TPOK Jazz

Francophonic, Vol. 2: 1980-1989 (Sterns Africa STCD 3046-47, 2009)

The first of this two-volume series came earlier in 2009, the 20th year since the death of African music legend L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi, known worldwide as Franco. As superbly as that earlier collection summed up the Congolese guitarist/composer/bandleader/singer’s first three decades, so does this second installment in covering his turbulent but often brilliant last act. It does so by including songs that perhaps best reflected the work of a man alternately battling and succumbing to his demons (rather literally so, since Franco was a man who long believed that sorcerers had it in for him).

Notwithstanding a long and successful career leading TPOK Jazz, considered the finest band in all of Congolese (or perhaps even African) music, Franco had by the early ‘80s become tired of the political, personal and business goings-on in Zaire under the despotic presidency of post-independence leader Mobutu. Franco divided his time between Paris, Brussels and the Zairean capital Kinshasa, and when the Union of Zairean Musicians bestowed upon him the title of Grand Maitre (Grand Master), the accolade set in motion a creative surge lasting the rest of Franco’s days.

Volume 2 of Francophonic handily steps in right where Volume 1 left off, after Franco had been established as one of the trailblazers who helped evolve Congolese music from rumba to the more expanded soukous style. But by 1980 it was clear that Franco’s music -and there was a lot of it by that point- wasn’t going to be enslaved by tradition, politics (despite numerous hidden meanings in his lyrics that the government viewed with suspicion but let slide because of Franco’s popularity) or anything else.

Despite being regarded by some as a disgrace and others as a hero, there could be no doubting that Franco was a musician and bandleader of the highest order, one who sought to make the best music possible. And though the lineup of players and singers who comprised the sizable ranks of TPOK Jazz changed almost constantly, the beautifully danceable music created by Franco and his ensemble was essential in sparking the kind of worldwide interest in African music that Franco thankfully lived long enough to witness.

Nearly two and a half hours in length, Volume 2 is made up of only 13 tracks, each a glowing example of the lengthy format characteristic of Congolese music at its most spellbinding. CD 1 begins with “Tokoma ba Camarade Pamba” (we’ve just become friends) a 1980 charmer marked by close harmonies, velvety guitars and hip-swinging rhythm. It’s the sonic opposite of the alienation Franco was feeling at the time, and indeed, the majority of the first disc has the air of deeply unfettered musical enjoyment. “Bina Na Ngai Na Respect” is a long, sweet lesson in dance etiquette, “Sandoka” showcases TPOK Jazz’s many great vocalists (Franco himself was an effective if not particularly skilled singer) and “Cooperation,” a smashing duet with TPOK alumnus Sam Mangwana, ends the disc.

CD 2 takes it all home, beginning with “Suite Lettre No. 1, a collaboration between Franco and his main rival for Congolese musical dominance, singer Tabu Ley Rochereau. It surprised everyone at the time and its Latin tinge still sounds great today. The sort of modern production techniques that Franco cautiously embraced are tastefully evident on “Pesa Position Na Yo,” paving the way for a wrap up that includes an alternate take of “Mario,” with another late great, Madilu System, providing lead vocals for perhaps the closest thing there was to a signature song in Franco’s huge repertoire.

The final two tracks, “Testament Ya Bowule” and “Sadou,” both address death in their lyrics. While Franco’s musical skills were undiminished on record at the time (1986-88), his health was failing. Kidney failure was the officially listed cause of his 1989 passing, though rumors of AIDS persist to this day. But that’s just a footnote. Music is the only legacy that needs to be attached to the complicated, multifaceted and immensely gifted Franco, and while this double CD and its predecessor represent only a small fraction of it, they’re superb.

In the lengthy but very readable liner notes, compiler Ken Braun states that if Francophonic leads listeners to seek out further works by the Grand Master, its purpose will be served. So consider Francophonic’s two volumes an absolutely essential starting point into discovering the music of Congo’s immortal guitar giant.

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