Franco de Mi Amor

Though Franco was always a troublemaker, not afraid to pick fights with government officials or profit-skimming businessmen, he was also a stooge for Sese Seko Mobutu, Africa's most rapacious tyrant. It was that or emigrate for a man of the people whose every artistic tack proves how much he loved the Congo and particularly Kinshasa: Kinshasa belonged to Mobutu, a demagogue who courted pop stars and gave disloyalty no quarter. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that Franco made noises more regrettable than any James Brown ever uttered about Richard Nixon in far less parlous circumstances. Also like that monkey man, he never stopped believing this is a man's man's man's world. One of his early sobriquets was Franco de Mi Amor, bestowed in the '50s by the new female cooperative saving clubs that provided many of his most passionate fans, which presaged a cohort eventually ranging, Ewens suggests, "from innocent teenagers, widows and divorcées to adulteresses and outright prostitutes," and 17 of his 18 children by 14 mothers were girls. Like many ladies' men, he could write convincingly from a woman's point of view. But he knew which side he was on in the battle of the sexes, which was his greatest subject; the supposed breakthrough "Mario" criticized a man who was living off a rich older woman, never a socially acceptable pattern. His only song manifesting the kind of protofeminist effort apparent in Youssou N'Dour, say, was written by Ntesa Dalienst.

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

And still "Mario" is a great song—great if you know what it means, great if you don't. Musicians make lousy ideologues, we've figured that out by now, and what endures about the Grand Maître isn't his ideas but an attitude perfectly comprehensible to non-Lingala speakers. This was a man who knew his place but was never constrained by it. He absorbed lessons from Cuban records and a Belgian producer and a ne'er-do-well guitarist who boarded with his mother and got rich giving those lessons back to Kinshasa in no uncertain terms. We always think of him as the embodiment of a seismic musical tendency, and he was. But as we listen closer we get to hear him as the individual christened François Luambo Makiadi. He couldn't be one without the other.

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