Franco, who would have been 80 this year if he hadn’t died of AIDS when he was young, remains a stable household name in Central and East Africa, even as the countries where his musical style dominated face various types of political turmoil.
Not many performers’ deaths are met with continent-wide mourning, hundreds of thousands thronging their hometown streets, and four days of state-mandated mourning.
However, when François Luambo Makiadi died in 1989, this was the situation. Throughout his career, he was known as ‘the Sorcerer of the Guitar,’ ‘Yorgho’ (Godfather), and, as he preferred to be addressed, ‘Grand Maître.’ However, he was best known in Africa simply as Franco.
He did not invent Congolese rumba, but he reinvented and popularized it until, transformed into the energizing style known as soukous, it dominated Africa’s airwaves for decades.
He went on to become one of the continent’s best-selling and most popular performers, and he is now a household name throughout much of Africa. On July 6, he would have turned 80.
Franco’s life story is well known to followers of 1970s and 1980s African music. He was a prodigy who fashioned his own guitar at the age of seven in Sona Bata, Bas-Zaire.
When his father died four years later, Franco dropped out of school to support his family; his professional debut came at the age of 12, in a band named Watam (the Delinquents), and his reputation grew so strong that he was signed to a 10-year contract shortly after his 15th birthday.
He had to wait seven years to become bandleader, but once he did, in 1960, he truly ruled the roost. He was a major player in African pop music until his death, most likely from AIDS, in 1989.
Franco was significant in more ways than one. The wealth he amassed fed his voracious appetite. In his youth, he was a scrawny tearaway who finally ballooned to 140kg; once, in a weird display of power, he attempted to eat an entire goat in front of his starving musicians.
But his ravenous appetite for food was matched by his extraordinary songwriting output. For 30 years, he and his band, OK Jazz (after TPOK Jazz), released an average of two new songs each week, totaling well over a thousand.
The term “jazz” is misleading; aside from horn passages and progressively extended tracks, Franco’s work bore little resemblance to American jazz.
Africa’s Dance Music Redefined
Such output would be meaningless if the music was not of such great quality and influence – but Franco reinvented African dance music.
Congolese rumba was distinguished by three characteristics: its Cuban-influenced rhythms, the foregrounding of lyrics that carried their own eloquent Lingala rhythm above the clavé beat, and the seben – an instrumental interlude featuring at least two dueling guitars that brought the song to a fever pitch.
Franco did not develop the seben, but he popularized its use at the end of rumba songs rather than in the middle, and he used a special thumb-and-forefinger plucking approach instead of a plectrum to create a mesmerizing sound hallucination of two guitar lines.
This emphasized an already guitar-heavy line-up: bass, rhythm, lead, and ‘mi-solo,’ a bridge between lead and rhythm, typically played by Franco himself.
The magic formula – a normal verse-chorus structure followed by a frenzied guitar rave-up – peaked in the early 1980s with songs like Sandoka, Tuti, Mujinga, and Zala Sportif.
The music evolved alongside Franco. These four tracks lasted an average of 11 minutes, thanks to developments in recording technology that made LPs (long-playing albums) more popular.
Bina Na Ngai Na Respect, sung from the perspective of a lady begging to be treated respectfully on the dancefloor, was a smash that changed and evolved over the course of its nearly 18-minute duration.
Galvanic guitar pop quickly made its way to Kenya, where Congolese musicians frequently toured; Orchestra Super Mazembe, which had an international hit with the exquisite nine-minute Shauri Yako, was a ‘Kenyan’ band made up entirely of Zaireans.
From the mid-’70s and throughout the ’80s, Congolese music was the chief mover of hips in East African nightclubs, and soon spread abroad. When the Zairean economy began to nosedive in the late ’70s, Congolese musicians emigrated in droves to Paris and Brussels.
The confident guitar sound Franco had pioneered was sent into overdrive in Paris by Kanda Bongo Man, among others, and muscled its way into European charts. It continues to make itself felt today. Vampire Weekend are unimaginable without those Congolese rhythms; Ed Sheeran’s Bibia Be Ye Ye may feature two Ghanaian guitarists, but their sound is unmistakeably soukous-derived.
Franco’s internationalism, however, was born of ambition and financial necessity; for all his innovations, he was for the most part a nationalist, a localist and a traditionalist.
According to musicologist Bob White, the 1960s saw the emergence of two schools of Congolese rumba: fiesta, which was soft, sophisticated, refined and romantically outward-looking, and ondemba, which was rhythmic, repetitive, visceral and traditionalist.
This is to an extent a false dichotomy: much of Franco’s music was clean, romantic and sophisticated. But whereas most famous Congolese musicians – including Tabu Ley Rochereau, Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba – played fiesta rumba and readily embraced global styles, OK Jazz was, according to White, the only major band to be deeply rooted in the traditionalist sound of ondemba. It’s a musical affinity that might explain what made Franco so attractive to one of Africa’s most dangerous despots.
Inspired by Chairman Mao
In the late ’60s, inspired by Chairman Mao, President Mobutu began propounding his authenticité campaign in earnest. Attempting to unify a country that had descended rapidly from a febrile independence into civil war, Mobutu decreed that the nation would come together by finding its roots.
The Republic of the Congo became Zaire; Léopoldville became Kinshasa. Even Franco changed his name to L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Luanzo Makiadi. By the mid-’70s, men were required to jettison their Western attire in favour of traditional tunics. But the most disturbing aspect of authenticité was Mobutu’s use of music.
From the early 1970s until the late 1980s, tens of thousands of Zaireans were involved in organising l’animation politique et culturelle – a programme of state-sponsored song and dance that drew on Congolese folklore and dominated the cultural consciousness of Zaireans.
In 1976, it accounted for up to 12 hours of state-broadcast content per day. By the early ’80s, participation had become mandatory even for private-sector organisations; each day commenced with employees clapping their hands and singing nationalist anthems. Those who did not take this seriously risked dismissal or, in some cases, incarceration. “The best way to achieve happiness – is it not through one’s culture?” asked Mobutu in one of his speeches. “It is when people are able to communicate what they feel deep inside, when they can sing and dance, that they are truly happy.”
It’s a chilling statement – all the more so because Franco was, over the years, a consistent and vocal supporter of Mobutu. His 1970 song Belela Authenticité nakati ya Congress (‘Declare Authenticity in the Congress’) ends with the lines ‘My political party is the MPR / My chief is Mobutu Sese Seko’ sung in Lingala.
At this point, he was arguably reflecting the hope harboured by many Congolese for continued stability. Indeed, Franco’s rise coincided with the rise of Zaire on the world stage, peaking with the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
American scholar Gary Stewart wrote the book on Congolese rumba, literally: his Rumba on the River is a comprehensive, deeply researched, highly readable overview of the genre’s rise and decline.
When I asked him whether Franco’s relationship with his head of state was unique, he was defensive of the musician. “Praise singing is a tradition in Africa,” he told me. “It started out with traditional musicians singing the praises of the village chief, and carried on until African countries began to gain independence… certainly it happened in Zaire. Everybody sang the President’s praises.”
Yet it seems like Franco went further than most. As late as 1984, when the hope inspired by Mobutu’s early promise had long since curdled into misery for the many, he released Candidat Na Biso Mobutu (‘Our candidate Mobutu’), a panegyric more laudatory than any by Franco’s musical rivals.
When Wendo Kolosoy, a musician popular and influential enough to be given the first track on World Music Network’s Rough Guide to Congo Gold compilation, was asked why he stopped recording and performing in the 1960s, he gave a poignant but quietly defiant answer. “Political men at the time wanted to use musicians like stepping stones,” he explained. “They wanted musicians to sing their praises. Me, I did not want to do that. That’s why I decided it was best for me… to pull myself out of the music scene.”
Franco’s flattery of Mobutu in the early ’70s proved canny. Seeking to co-opt a potential source of rebellion, Mobutu wooed the musician with the lure of capital and power. In 1972, as he toured the country to promote authenticité, Franco came to possess a nightclub in Matonge from a former government minister by way of Mobutu’s wife Marie-Antoinette.
He oversaw its conversion into the thriving Un-Deux-Trois club, soon to be Kinshasa’s musical epicentre. But it was the following year that Franco formally became chief of the country’s music scene. Appointed as the head of UMUZA, the national musicians’ union, Franco began to draw uncomfortable parallels with his country’s leader.
Deft balancing act
Having apparently counted 371 bands in Kinshasa in 1973, Franco declared a nationwide moratorium on new bands and record production companies. He viewed younger bands such as Zaïko Langa Langa and Trio Madjesi as a challenge to his dominance; when in 1975 the latter announced it had a contract to play at the Olympia in Paris, UMUZA suspended the band for 12 months on trumped-up charges.
Separately, the state gave Franco control of MAZADIS, the country’s largest record-pressing plant – and it was no secret that he would prioritise the pressing of his own records over those of others. It left a sour taste in many mouths. One Congolese man told White in 2006: “Franco and Mobutu were birds of a feather. They had the same techniques, the same leadership style… and that’s why I never listen to Franco, because [when I hear his music] I just keep seeing Mobutu.”
Despite all this, and other than a brief blip in the mid-’70s, Franco remained supremely popular. Part of this was down to his deft balancing act of courting the authorities while criticising them in coded terms.
One of his epithets was ‘the Balzac of Congolese music’; people of all ages loved his keenly phrased lyrics and way of singing about everyday situations, emotions and the battle of the sexes, usually with a twinkle in his eye. On numerous occasions he would flaunt his mastery of mbwakela, the art of delivering slyly allegorical lyrics like musical romans à clef.
The most famous example was a song best known as Tailleur, whose lyrics (“The owner of the needle has impounded it / How will you sew now?”) were widely perceived to be poking fun at recently demoted Attorney-General Kengo Wa Dondo, who had jailed Franco for over a month in 1979 for obscene lyrics. (Jacky, leaked to the public by bootleggers, is shocking even by today’s standards: it makes explicit reference not only to oral and anal sex, but to coprophagia.)
Franco criticised authorities in song numerous times throughout his career. As early as 1958, Mukoko – a song he wrote aged 20, in jail for reckless driving – was banned by the colonial authorities for its allusions to hope for decolonisation; in 1976, his Toyeba Yo was a jeremiad about overzealous policemen and administrators.
The year before recording Candidat Na Biso Mobutu, he released Lettre à Mr. Le Directeur-General. On the surface it criticised the incompetent executives of the large companies nationalised by Mobutu – but since it was Mobutu who appointed them, the complaint was widely perceived to be aimed at the top.
Franco was also capable of songs of heart-rending pain, which he often sang in his mother tongue of Kikongo rather than Lingala – such as Kinsiona, his lament for the younger brother he lost in a car accident, or Luvumbu Ndoki, a rhythmically captivating threnody for the victims of Mobutu’s public executions in 1966.
Franco was duly arrested and questioned; the record was banned, and most copies destroyed. It’s easily available today, though, and packs a hell of a punch even for non-Kikongo speakers – gorgeous riffs bookend an a cappella accusation of sorcery, delivered breathlessly by Franco in a wounded voice of tear-stricken sorrow.
It leads us to the real reason why Franco’s music endures: the inexhaustible, variegated beauty of the music itself. I asked Ken Braun, compiler of Sterns Africa’s superb but sadly out-of-print Francophonic compilations, whether lyrical considerations played a role in his song choices, and whether he deliberately avoided Franco’s more controversial or chauvinistic songs.
“Even as someone who understands Lingala,” he told me, “the first thing I hear when I listen to a Congolese song is the music. It’s only after several plays that I start to focus on the words. And that isn’t just because that’s the way I listen to the music; that’s the way most people would be listening to it… it’s the rhythms, the melodies, the guitar artistry, the voices.”
Franco’s hundreds of catchy, danceable tunes have a spirit and humour that come across whether or not you speak Lingala. Many commentators have said that his chief skill was as a bandleader rather than as a guitarist or singer. But his guitar style was powerful and influential; his instantly recognisable, many-hued baritone remains a source of comfort and warmth to people all over the world. And not many Congolese would both play and sing.
Less known outside Africa
So it is curious that Franco – unlike contemporaries such as Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé and Ali Farka Touré – is not a household name in the UK or the US. I ask Braun if this has to do with the fact that he never sang anything in English.
“I think that’s true, but it’s not just that,” he explained. “The rhythm of, say, Afrobeat is distinctly African, but African in a way that Americans recognise because of American funk and New Orleans music and soul, and even some jazz… [it makes] Fela and his sons appealing to Americans in a way that no Congolese musician ever was.”
It isn’t just language, recognisable rhythms and colonial sinews that make Nigerian and South African music more popular in the Anglophone world; otherwise, how to explain the popularity of Malian and Senegalese artists? It’s also the way their catalogues are managed and promoted.
When Island Records, sensing a growing market for ‘world music’, was scouting for African music in 1980, its first releases were Sound d’Afrique and Sound d’Afrique II: Soukous, both of which brimmed with Congolese influences. But the first artist it signed was, strangely, the Nigerian Sunny Adé, whose localist juju sound was less dancefloor-ready than Congolese soukous.
Meanwhile, Paris throbbed with the sound of soukous, which never successfully made it across the Channel, let alone the Atlantic. It didn’t help that Franco cancelled three separate shows in London over the years, first for visa reasons and later for health reasons.
Franco’s albums in particular have not enjoyed the same treatment as many other African artists’, despite the fact that he was one of Africa’s best-selling musicians. Sonodisc has long owned the rights to his catalogue, but its haphazard Franco releases – with songs reordered, mislabelled and truncated for no apparent reason – have made an already voluminous discography even harder to navigate.
Hundreds of Franco’s songs are available on Spotify, but not all – not even his most powerful track, the 16-minute Attention Na SIDA, whose surging melodies and deeply memorable rhythms are pinned down by Franco’s thunderous warning about AIDS, delivered in French and Lingala to reach as many people as possible. His songs on Spotify are often misspelt, mistitled or attributed to others.
It is rumoured that in the last year, certain legal settlements have been made in Franco’s estate. But it’s unlikely this will lead to a reissue series on the scale of the recent Fela Kuti releases. “The worldwide interest in Afrobeat following Fela’s death wasn’t paralleled by international interest in Franco,” says Braun. ‘There’s no doubt that when they were both alive, Franco was far more popular in Africa than Fela was. So [it’s ironic] that since their deaths, Fela is the one who’s gotten so much more attention.’
In 2015, a statue of Franco was erected in Kinshasa. But among the young, his mindshare is slipping.
When asked about Franco’s legacy, one Congolese man told a friend of mine that “Nigeria won the music war”. And as the younger generation of Congolese musicians, including modernist outfit Konono No.1 and Belgian rapper Baloji, make global headway by fusing styles like hip-hop, guitar pop and techno, the airwaves are no longer ruled by rumba and soukous.
Perhaps this has only served to make Franco’s songs more refreshing. They are undeniably beautiful and relentlessly upbeat, and the fact that they have no musical cousins in today’s charts makes them seem that much more special.
As Franco’s historical context fades, the uncomfortable questions about art and power in Zaire become increasingly academic. What we are left with is the music – timeless, iridescent and, of course, danceable.
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