Print this Page

World Music Legends

Franco

By Al Angeloro
Published March 2005
CONGO

Rumba

Franco has been called the Balzac of Africa and the godfather of African music; he’s been likened to Shakespeare, Mozart and Pelé, and described as a human god. The government of Zaire dubbed him Grande Maître, a title usually reserved for judges and scholars, even though his lyrics got him jailed or denied permission to leave the country on more than one occasion. He managed to tour Europe and the United States in the mid-1980s, and yet this truly legendary bandleader, who was beloved by millions and respected by heads of state, remains little-known outside Africa.

Unlike most musicians, Franco died a multi-millionaire. At its prime, his band T.P.O.K. Jazz included 23 musicians, plus dancers. He ultimately led two bands, supporting over 40 musicians and dancers and their families. He recorded and composed prolifically, leaving a legacy of over 150 albums, countless singles and more than 3000 compositions, with different styles and statements marking distinctive periods in his long career.

It can be said that Franco re-Africanized the Cuban-based rumba Congolaise and pioneered the genre now known as soukous by including local religious and folk rhythms, particularly those of his Bakongo ethnic group and of the Bantandu, the subgroup he belonged to. He also integrated Antillean forms such as the beguine into his sound. 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. In T.P.O.K. Jazz, his flowing guitar bounced off three other guitars, along with a bass, a big Cuban-style horn section and a large vocal chorus. Riveting call-and-response patterns would weave in and out among all these elements, creating a hypnotic effect.

Franco’s lyrics, in the Lingala language, were full of social, often satirical, commentary. With texts full of hidden and not-so-hidden agendas, he sang of government, fate and—his favorite topic—the eternal conflict between men and women. His epic song/discourse “Mario,” about a lazy educated mean and the older woman he exploits until she kicks him out, sold in the millions.

Born Luambo Makiadi in 1938 in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now Republic of Congo), Franco took up music and established an intimate, almost familial relationship with his audience at a very early age. His mother had a stall in the Ngiri-Ngiri market in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville), where he played harmonica, kazoo and a homemade guitar to attract customers. Soon he organized a sort of pickup group called a kebo band, featuring a patenge drum and a soda bottle scraped with a nail to mimic to a Cuban guiro. Not yet 10 years old, he was a bandleader.

He got his first real guitar at 11 and a year later became lead guitarist with Henri Bowane and Paul Ebongo Dewayon’s group, Watam. His first recording with Watam, “Bolingo Na Ngai Na Béatrice,” released on the Greek-run Loningisa label in 1953, was a hit and gave Franco his first<

Recommended Recordings

 

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)