Franco Luambo Makiadi huge bronze statue stands smiling, a guitar strapped to his burly self, towers above Kinshasa; a fitting tribute to arguably the most significant cultural icons that Africa has ever produced.
Graeme Ewens’s critically-acclaimed book, Congo’s Colossus: The Life and Legacy of Franco and The Ok Jazz, captures powerfully and precisely the stature of the Congolese crooner who mesmerized many with his mastery of the guitar and his fresh lyrics.
Ewens’s contention is by no means hyperbolic.
Franco was truly a master of his craft who mastered his craft, towering above Africa’s musical landscape like a colossus.
Franco’s story is as epic and inspiring as they come. A testimony to what sheer determination, grit, and hard work can do.
A story of a young man born into grinding poverty but who would pull himself by his own bootstraps to become the undisputed king of Rhumba.
His passion for music started showing at a tender age. A contention confirmed by relatives and peers who saw him grow up and come of age in the village of Sona Bata.
Franco Luambo Makiadi’s First Guitar
He made his first guitar from strings, sticks and a tin and would carry it to school, the market and football matches where he would entertain people.
The likes of Ebengo Deyawon, Joseph Kabasele and Bowane, who were ruling the roost at the time, greatly inspired the young and aspiring Franco Luambo Makiadi.
Those who saw him play say he mesmerized them with his guitar-strumming skills and had no doubt that he would morph into a national sensation.
Franco exceeded and confounded their expectations by becoming a phenomenon that transcended borders, linguistic and cultural barriers.
Tout Puissant OK JAZZ
In the 1950’s, confident in his abilities, Franco assumed responsibility in the Tout Puissant OK JAZZ, the all powerful OK JAZZ, band as the leader.
But it is until the seventies when the band and Franco would establish themselves in the public’s consciousness as Africa’s best.
His stunning duet with Madilu System, an immensely talented vocalist and a member of TP OK JAZZ, Mario was an instant hit that helped add fuel to the already raging conflagration of Franco’s and TP OK JAZZ’s popularity.
Franco had by now honed his guitar playing skills that he was baptized ”The Sorcerer of the Guitar”. His style borrowed elements from Cuban Rhumba and elements from Congolese music, revolutionizing Congolese music.
TP OK JAZZ was consolidating its power in DRC Congo; its grip on the country was only growing tighter.
It had by now forty members, some would remain in Kinshasa while others would move around DRC Congo and the world as the demand for their music continued to grow.
More hits would follow: Mamou, Sadole Kimpa Kisangameni, to mention but a few.
The band would make a fortune, affording the members king size lives. Franco is said to have owned a yatch, big enough to allow the landing of a presidential helicopter.
His critics and they are many, contend that the talented crooner failed to utilize his platform to focus attention on the socio-economic plight that the Congolese were going through.
Candidat na Biso Mobutu (Our Candidate is Mobutu), a song he sang as an endorsement of Mobutu Se Seko,a brutal and corrupt dictator drew particular wrath from detractors who accused Franco of going to bed with a devilishly brutal government.
While his legacy around articulating politically touchy issues remains an ongoing matter of full-blooded contention, there is no doubt that Franco revolutionized Africa’s musical landscape.
And in that process, he mentored other musicians who went to become sensations.
As a matter of fact, he sang close to a thousand songs and released over 200 albums; a testament to his incredible creativity.
The musicians mentored by him include several musician heavyweights.
The late Madilu System with whom he sang many stunning duets, revered for his husky tenor, vibrato technique, and trademark guffaw.
Litumba Simaro who now is deceased.
Mose se Fan Fan,also deceased ”Papa Lolo” tune.
Sam Mangwana and many others.
Thirty one years after his death, Franco’s tunes still blare from speakers of entertainment joints and households in Africa and beyond; a powerful reminder of his colossal stature.
His death dealt a brutal punch to the gut of the TP OK JAZZ band and plunged his home country into mourning as the rest of the world reeled with shock.
The Grand Maitre (The Grand Master), as Madilu System called him in his popular tune, Ya Jean, lives on in his music.