Franco de Mi Amor

Forced to distinguish, I'd say the Manteca is more the instant hit, the Rough Guidemore the groove carnival. The Manteca starts with the old theme song "On Entre O.K., On Sort K.O." (an exemplary piece of wordplay for a band named after its sponsor's initials, not some Yank slang), its rival with a "Merengue" that has no speed-merengue in it (this was 1956, after all). The Manteca is never better than when it moves from a satire on Mobutu's public executions of 1965 (in the Kikongo tongue of Franco's mother, based on Kikongo folklore about a sorcerer and featuring 90 seconds of terrified chatter in the middle, led to a six-month exile in Brazzaville) to that James Brown takeoff to a gut-wrenching Kikongo mourning song for his younger brother to the catchily harmonized "AZDA," a pan-African smash that sings the praises of a Volkswagen dealership. The Rough Guidelays out a wide range of Afro-Latin beats and sounds (try "Likambo Ya Ngana" 's retro accordion and femme chorus) before sandwiching two lilting satires around a funereal declamation denying that Franco is a drug dealer and then breaking into the nonpareil Afro-Parisian "Chacun Pour Soi," from the Choc Choc Chocsessions to which Franco and light-fingered henchman Michelino are said to have added nine guitar tracks. Both collections are striking for two things above all: endless variety in a supposedly formulaic style and nonstop melody in a supposedly rhythm-bound one.

Because the soukous we know best is the slick, pealing, high-energy stuff rolled out so gorgeously in Paris in the '80s, these records may be pokier than you expect. More than half their tracks precede the soukous era proper. And the admonitory "Attention Na Sida," while staunchly danceable—its organizing riff copied, in fact, off 1978's "Jacky," which got Franco thrown in jail for describing a woman who fed her lovers what Ewens identifies as "excrement" (come on, feces or urine? The people have a right to know)—isn't exactly an up. Rarely on any of these 22 tracks does the sebene rise up and carry you away, and when you listen for Franco's guitar you discover that his career-making style came late if at all to the lace-surfaced shimmer that is soukous's hallmark—the fluidity that suffuses Omona Wapiand buoys "Ekaba Kaba" on Celluloid's definitive Zaire Choc! compilation. Gruff, sardonic, magisterial, he picked single-lined riffs and melodies at less than quicksilver speed; you can always tell the music passed through his brain before reaching his fingers. His plangent, forthright sound is his own, but if you want an analogy to his approach, say he plays like a John Lennon with more chops and a head for business—a John Lennon who could hire all the Eric Claptons he needed. And because Franco had a great head for business and music both, he knew damn well he needed them.

In this his guitar is like his singing. Franco is famous for his shifting corps of vocalists, totaling 37 by Ewens's count. A few of them could do it all—notably the faithful Josky and the virtuosic Sam Mangwana, whom Franco lured away from Tabu Ley for three fruitful years preceding Mangwana's solo breakthrough. But most were there to provide a sweetness Franco knew enough to value and knew he didn't have in him—more than I can pretend to tell apart, although his solo album Belalohas won Ntesa Dalienst, who was with Franco from 1976 till the end, a special place in my mind's ear. Whatever Franco's technical limitations, he remained OK Jazz's primary singer as well as its primary guitarist, if only because no one else was equal to lyrics that aren't just one reason Zaireans loved him, but also speak volumes as an enacted language to attentive listeners who'll never know a word of Lingala. Liner notes and trots help—I had a flash when I learned that the entrancing, sax-hooked, 16-minute verse-and-sebene "Très Impoli," which anchors 3ème Anniversaire, included imprecations against guys who raid their friends' refrigerators and show the holes in their smelly socks. But just from the way he delivers and accompanies his words you know what kind of artist this is. You know that he maintained his credibility as a man of the people by addressing them plainly. You recognize that his failure to pursue the European-American market like Rochereau and Mangwana meshes with his Africa-first anticolonial authenticitérhetoric. You realize that it was his stubborn Africanness that kept him from riding Afro-Parisian soukous's 140-mph express all the way to glory.

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

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After all, Franco was confident he could accelerate quicker than a heartbeat under his own steam. His live shows, celebrated throughout Africa but staples at the club he owned in Kinshasa's Matonge quarter, really were carnivals. He appeared only twice in New York, first on a frigid November night in 1983. Not really knowing much about him, my wife and I got to the Manhattan Center late. The lobby was dead, the elevator lonely, the list makeshift. Then we opened a door and wham—lights, action, music. I don't want to say it was like being teleported to Zaire, I've never been to Zaire, but that was certainly the illusion. Though the room wasn't jammed full it seemed to be teeming, perhaps because there were some 40 people on the stage, all surrounding a fat man who sat on a chair and played guitar. Beyond a vague vision of the color and motion of the female dancers and a physical memory of rippling sebenes, I can't bring back a single detail. But none of the hundreds of soukous albums to come my way since then has matched the experience. And Ewens says that wasn't even a good show! Anyone who could have made such a thing happen thousands of times inhabited a different reality than you or me.

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