Sandlines: Franco, King of African Rumba

Edward B. Rackley

Africa has produced many musical giants. Some, like Fela Kuti and Cesaria Evora, achieve international renown; others influence a wide swathe of musicians but remain relatively unknown to a wider public. François Luambo Makiadi (6 July 1938 – 12 Oct. 1989), the Congolese bandleader and guitarist, is definitely in the latter category. Considered the father of the modern Congolese sound, he is a towering figure even in death, and certainly the greatest the DR Congo (formerly Zaire) has ever produced.

Nicknamed “the Sorcerer ” for his fluid, seemingly effortless guitar playing, François or ‘Franco’ founded the seminal group Orchestre Kinshasa Jazz, shortened to ‘O.K. Jazz’, in 1955. Franco led O.K. Jazz—later dubbed ‘T.P.’ or ‘Tout Puissant (almighty) O.K. Jazz’ by his fans—until his death, a total of 33 years.

In 1989 after his premature passing to AIDS at 51, the Zairian government declared four days of national mourning. The national radio service, Voix du Zaire, played only Franco songs, twenty-four hours a day. In the countryside where I was living at the time, daily life stopped entirely, out of solidarity and respect for a man many felt they knew personally. Neighbors sat under palm trees listening to radios, farmers and schoolchildren stayed home, the palm wine flowed. Although I didn’t know Franco’s music well at the time, I recall noticing an absence of repetition in the DJ’s playlist. No wonder—with over 100 albums in thirty years, the O.K. Jazz discography far exceeds that of Elvis and the Beatles combined.
Franco achieved iconic status not for his guitar wizardry, his talents as a composer or vocalist. His greatness lay with his abilities as a bandleader, organizer and recruiter of new talent. In O.K. Jazz Franco offered a launching pad for many artists, including Sam Mangwana, Verckys Kiamuangana, Mose Fan Fan, Youlou Mabiala, Papa Noel, Dizzy Mandjeku, Josky Kiambukuta and Madilu ‘Système’ Bialu. All of these and more floated in and out of O.K. Jazz, many with important international careers of their own. Ultimately, though, Franco had the vision to push the music forward, to form line-ups that could master develop the rumba style with it various offshoots, including the speedy Soukous, which blossomed in the late 1960s.

Here’s an early 1960s rendition of ‘Toyeba Yo’ (‘We know you’), with a young but already large Franco in the back:

Roots of African Rumba and Soukous

Franco’s family moved to Congo’s capital as a Belgian colony, Leopoldville, when he was a child. By the age of ten he had mastered his homemade guitar, listening to European music via colonials and missionaries, and to Cuban ballads playing on local radio. After his recording debut as a studio musician, he formed a band at 15, which debuted at the OK Bar in 1955. He took this name a year later for the new band, calling it ‘O.K. Jazz’. Within a year they were challenging the established stars, Dr. Nico’s ‘African Jazz’, as Congo’s top group.

Like African Jazz, O.K. Jazz started out playing their versions of Cuban music, whose rhythms had bounced from West Africa across the Atlantic and back. But while African Jazz continued to look to outside influences, Franco and O.K. Jazz turned to Congolese traditions. He shaped the Cuban rumba into the ‘rumba odemba’, named after an aphrodisiac tree bark still popular in bars and nightclubs today. As guitarist, singer, songwriter and showman, the Franco stage persona seemed to draw as much from rock ‘n’ roll as from rumba, while remaining firmly grounded in local tradition.

Congolese independence in 1960 was followed by instability and violence. Franco and O.K. Jazz, with its constantly changing personnel, headed off to Belgium to record. By 1965, with President Mobutu Sese Seko firmly in power, the band returned and began its climb to the heights of national popularity, headlining the Festival of African Arts in Kinshasa the following year.

Here, Franco and Sam Mangwana collaborate again on Cooperation. No video, alas.

From the sixties forward, Franco began to replace Cuban-style melodies with longer, curvier vocal lines closer to the speech-melodies of Lingala. Drumming patterns progressed into greater complexity while achieving a hypnotic, background effect. Guitar lines multiplied, evolving into the “limpid, gleaming tone” (Jon Pareles) that went on to cover West Africa and the French-speaking Caribbean. By the mid-1960’s, a new name has arise for Zairian pop—Soukous, a hybrid of the French ‘secouer’ and Lingala ‘sukisa’, both meaning ‘to shake’.

As African Jazz fell apart and other bands emerged, O.K. Jazz expanded to a dozen members or more. Its audience grew exponentially, transcending national and regional borders. In that period when African countries were all gaining independence, new relations were forged with neighboring countries. Records, radios and tours were spreading Congolese music throughout the continent, O.K. Jazz quickly came to embody the modern African band, and Franco one of the first pan-African stars.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Franco and the band toured and recorded constantly. O.K. Jazz played three-chord dance music that gently carried listeners into motion—a glistening web of guitar lines, horn-section riffs, vocal harmonies and drumming, complex but transparent and irresistibly lilting. Initiated with ten members in the mid-1950s, its size had tripled by the time Franco first played in the United States in 1983.

By the late 1970s the line-up on stage and in the studio included at least two drummers, a bass player, four guitarists, four trumpeters, four saxophonists, and as many as six singers switching between the chorus and the lead. Franco stood in the center or towards the rear of the stage, guitar slung across his wide girth, holding the sprawling ensemble together. He sang solos and duets in a husky baritone, but more often would feature other singers, sometimes confining his vocals to commentary or narrative spoken in the margins of the music. Above all he played his guitar, starting most numbers with a rumba flourish or odemba riff and leading the band from one section to the next and finally into an instrumental climax, weaving his signature fretwork among other guitar parts while the drums pounded and the horns wailed away, tout puissant like no other band of its day.

Here’s ‘Bimasha’: very tight, powerful horn section, from the late 70s/early 80s. Worth a look for the period costumes and stage personas alone…

Authenticity’s lapdog?

The rise of O.K. Jazz coincided with the restructuring of an independent Congo by Mobutu Sese Seko. In the early 1970s, besides the disastrous decision to ‘Zairianize’ (nationalize) private businesses held by colonial families, Mobutu also launched a coercive cultural-political reform initiative known as ‘authenticité’. The influences of Senghor, Fanon and Sartre on this program are direct and constitute a fascinating tale in their own right, one too lengthy to recount here. The ostensible aim of authenticité was to reclaim African traditions and to ‘decolonize the mind’ by breaking clean from colonial influences. While Franco’s music was played on Western instruments, by the late 1960s it was already unmistakably African.

In practice, authenticité meant that Congo became Zaire; Leopoldville became Kinshasa. All across the country, the names of towns, rivers, lakes and districts lost their European names for traditional or invented African names. Western suits and ties were banned in favor of the ‘Abacos’, short for ‘A bas les costumes’ (‘no more suits’). Zairians were required to abandon their christened, European names in favor of African ones. In professional settings, the formal address ‘Citoyen/ne’ (‘citizen’) replaced Monsieur/Madame. To comply with the new authenticity laws, Franco became L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi. Like the dictator who would become his political patron, President Mobutu, exuberance and immodesty were never in short supply with Franco.
In 1980, the Zairian government bestowed on Franco the title of ‘Grand Maitre’. It was a huge honor, but came with the indelible stain of the country’s ruling kleptocracy. His lyrics changed significantly under the weight of official recognition, switching to patriotic songs of praise and tributes to rich fans—an about-face from the independent profile he had cut as a younger man.

Yet even as Mobutu recognized Franco’s power, he also feared it, trying to control it and use it to his advantage. But Franco was not always the darling of the political establishment, and spent short periods in jail on accusations of ‘immorality’. Like all Congolese, he relished the apt pun and used parables to address controversial subjects. Was the song ‘Liberté’ only about escaping a domineering wife, or about a more fundamental form of liberty? Was ‘Tailleur’ really about a tailor who loses his needle, or was it Mobutu’s bootlicking Prime Minister? Under a repressive single-party regime, Congolese warmed to Franco’s subtle satire.

Faced with the biggest crisis of his life, however, Franco dropped the parodies and puns. The only solo composition he released in 1987 was “Attention na SIDA” (“Beware of AIDS”), whose lyrics presented a somber, plainspoken warning. It was his last big hit. He died two years later, never acknowledging that he may have had the disease. While his life’s work had certain international influence, the fact that so few Westerners know Franco’s music suggests the world is not so small after all.

Given that Franco recorded over 1000 songs with O.K. Jazz, getting an initial grip on the discography can be daunting. Far from mastering the entire Franco repertoire, I tend to cherish albums I’ve stumbled upon over the years, or that Congolese have referred to me. For first-timers, the three albums I always recommend are:

• ‘20e Anniversaire: 6 juin 1956 – 6 juin 1976’: The plaintive, rolling ‘Liberté’, mentioned above, opens the album. It also contains my two all-time favorite ballads, ‘Voyage na Bandundu’ and ‘Kamikaze’.
• ‘Missile’: From the authenticité era, it features the incredibly tight, tempo hopping ‘Adieu je m’en vais’.
• ‘Omona Wapi’, the legendary duet between Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, another great ‘sorcerer’ in Congolese music. ‘Lisanga ya Banganga’, the opener, is still heard on Kinshasa streets today.

Acquire these three disks and you’re ready to raise your glass and drink to the memory of these musical legends. The cultural era they created and almost singlehandedly sustained for forty years was destroyed in toto with the eruption of Congo’s tragic civil war in 1996. Congolese music has survived the war but lacks the authority and vision that Franco carried so well, for so long.

Here’s ‘Ngungi’ (‘mosquito’), from ‘Omona Wapi’, a stab at Kinshasa’s idle, gossiping class… some things about Kinshasa haven’t changed!