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.
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, sternsmusic.com) 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., www.manteca.co.uk) 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., firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
Forced to distinguish, I’d say the Manteca is more the instant hit, the Rough Guide more 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 Guide lays 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 Choc sessions 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 Wapi and 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 Belalo has 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 authenticité rhetoric. 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.
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.
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.
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.