Franco de Mi Amor

The best shorthand for the many-named hero christened François Luambo Makiadi and known as Franco is to coin a cliché and call him the James Brown of Africa. As individual artists the two had different strengths: Brown made his name as a vocalist before his genius as a dancer swept his singing before it, while Franco was a groundbreaking guitarist famed and feared for his lyrics. But both were bandleaders above all, and as such they were paradigm shifters—so much so that their masses of admirers raised them into cynosures, demigods, animi. Despite their awkwardness negotiating the political messes that occasionally enmeshed them, they weren't shy about wielding power, and each was explicitly committed to black consciousness—as opposed to colonialism in Franco's case, the other man in Brown's. They were big men who changed their worlds in a big way.

But though Brown is a byword in Africa, Franco is scarcely known in America, a disparity that did not go unnoticed by the Sorcerer of the Guitar, the Grand Maître of Zairean Music, the 285-pound powerhouse who inspired a biography that his Boswell, Graeme Ewens, called Congo Colossus. After Brown first visited Kinshasa in 1969, Franco declared himself unmoved—Brown "danced like a monkey," he told colleagues in OK Jazz, and didn't show sufficient respect for his ancestral roots, especially as embodied by the Grand Maître. But some of his men got Brown's message anyhow, and with Franco that counted. Not only did his OK Jazz band breed a phenomenal number of major Congolese musicians, but—much more than Brown, let it be said—the headman recorded their songs and encouraged them to develop side projects that he'd sell on his own label. My surmise is that some sort of byplay with his musicians got him grunting the perfect English-sounding JB parody-homage at the end of "Edo Aboyi Ngai."

The 84 albums listed in Congo Colossus's discography aren't the 150 Franco claimed, but they're plenty for a recording career that lasted 36 years, from 1953 until his death at 51 in 1989. True, overproduction is the standard African antipiracy strategy, and by the late '70s albums would commonly comprise only three or four songs that roughly approximated the standard structure of the continent-sweeping Afropop style we will call soukous although Franco—who associated the French-derived term with his romantic rival Tabu Ley Rochereau and tradition-blasting upstarts Zaiko Langa Langa—preferred the older "rumba." With props to Zairean musicologist Pierre Kazadi, Ewens outlines this structure more precisely than is altogether wise in such a volatile force-field. First a melodic section following the contours of a lyric that with Franco is almost always in Lingala—a tonal pidgin, originally the patois of the Congo docks, that serves as a kind of working-class West African Swahili—is varied and repeated vocally and instrumentally. And then comes the sebene, soukous's signature selling point,which has been credited to both Franco and one of his mentors, long-repatriated Belgian-born guitarist-producer Bill Alexandre, but which predates both and only flowered in its countless variegations after Zaiko launched their '70s youth movement. The sebene is an "improvisational episode" or "groove" in which three guitarists repeat short phrases off which the lead player improvises, generally remaining close enough to the source riffs to reinforce them and break them down simultaneously. Eventually younger players like Kanda Bongo Man shucked the verse to play nothing but sebene—"speed soukous." The intricate rush of the sebene is what you hear in your head when you recall what soukous sounds like.

Sorcerer, Grand Maître, Colossus
photo: World Music Network/Graeme Ewens
Sorcerer, Grand Maître, Colossus


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Which is a lot easier than recalling what Franco sounds like, especially for Americans. Compared to West and South African genres, there's never been much soukous released in this country, but Franco's neglect is remarkable even so. In part this no doubt reflects his long relationship with Paris-based Sonodisc, which has never tested the U.S. market, and in part his dealings with Brooklyn-based Makossa, which manufactured numerous Franco LPs stateside without getting much distribution on them (I once found three in an '80s punk shop; six or so, along with a few CDs, are still stocked at the African Record Centre, 1194 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn). Sonodisc has reissued much of Franco's music on CD, although only one of the four titles I recently tried at Stern's (71 Warren Street, NYC 10007, corresponds exactly to any original album in Ewens's discography, and two were all but untraceable. Stern's has a few more Sonodiscs, and CDNow and Amazon list over 40, but they're back-ordered, so I'm still waiting for the ones I tried to buy. According to Ken Braun of Stern's, who had to abandon a Franco box set for Stern's Africa when Sonodisc failed to finalize permissions, I could wait a long time. Franco's family has sued to gain control of his catalog, and Sonodisc, Braun told me, may have halted production until the case is resolved. Then a few days later he received a delayed shipment of 48 Franco titles. Get 'em while they're hot, I say.

This confusion makes two excellent recent compilations, both officially British but readily available here, even more valuable: last year's Franco: The Very Best of the Rumba Giant of Zaire, with pro forma notes by Jon Lusk on Manteca (Union Square Music, Unit 2, Grand Union Office Park, Packet Boat Lane, Cowley UB8 2GH, U.K., and the just released Rough Guide to Franco, with informative notes by co-compiler Ewens on World Music Network (6 Abbeville Mews, 88 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7BX, U.K., Commendably, Ewens repeats only one track from the earlier collection: "Attention Na Sida" ("Beware of AIDS"), by general agreement Franco's last great song as well as a way of implying that, actually, this voracious womanizer probably did die of AIDS no matter how much he and his people might deny it. Because both collections begin at the beginning and end at the very end, they mutate more than is convenient. The 20 explicitly Latin-influenced early songs on the still available Originalité (RetroAfric, PO Box 2977, London, W11 2WL, England) cohere better (kind of like the r&b ventures on JB's Roots of a Revolution), the verse-and-sebene workouts on 20ème Anniversaire 6 Juin 1956 6 Juin 1976 and 3ème Anniversaire de la Mort du Grand Maître Yorgho (Sonodisc CD 50382 and CDS 6851 to you) flow better, and there aren't many things in the world as beautiful as Omona Wapi, cut with Rochereau for Rochereau's label and hence still in print on Shanachie. But between them these two overviews place the colossus in history while showcasing music whose illustrative function doesn't compromise its capacity to startle and delight.

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