But Cuban music, which was all the rage throughout West and Central Africa in the ’50s and ’60s, provided the primary basis for his unique guitar and horn arrangements.
Franco’s lyrics, in the Lingala language, were full of social, often satirical, commentary. He sang of government, fate and the eternal conflict between men and women. His epic song/discourse “Mario,” about a lazy educated man and the older woman he exploits until she kicks him out, sold in the millions.
Born Luambo Makiadi in 1938 in the Belgian Congo, Franco took up music young and established an intimate relationship with his audience at a very early age. He got his first guitar at 11 and a year later became lead guitarist with Henri Bowane and Paul Ebongo Dewayon’s group, Watam. Belgian jazz guitarist Bill Alexandre helped Franco develop his signature finger-picking style. In 1956, Franco formed a rumba band called O.K. Jazz, later known as T.P.O.K. Jazz.
By 1960, two very distinct guitar styles had emerged in Congo: the more consistently Cuban style of Dr. Nico, and Franco’s. Nico became known as “the god of the guitar,” Franco as “the sorcerer of the guitar.” In 1960, Le Grand Kalle, although he led a rival band, arranged a European record deal for Franco that firmly established him as a star. He ultimately recorded over 150 albums and composed more than 3000 songs.
When Franco died in 1989, President Mobutu of Zaire gave him a state funeral, and thousands of ordinary Zairians traveled to Kinshasa to pay their respects. During the official four-day national mourning period, all the local radio stations played T.P.O.K. Jazz nonstop.
Attention Na Sida (Sonodisc)
Rough Guide to Franco: Africa’s Most Legendary Guitarist (World Music Network)
The Very Best Of Franco: The Rumba Giant Of Zaire (Manteca)