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Franco and Le TPOK Jazz: Francophonic - Africa's Greatest - A Retrospective - Vol. 1 1953 - 1980

Chris May By

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Capable of expressing the most fragile lyric beauty, Franco's chordal-based guitar style was more typically 'rough,' piling variation upon variation on top of a reiterated riff with mesmerizing effect
Franco and Le TPOK Jazz
Francophonic - Africa's Greatest - A Retrospective - Vol. 1 1953 - 1980

During his 35 year recording career, the Congolese guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader Franco released several hundred singles and around 150 albums. Where does the anthologist begin, and more to the point, where does he or she finish? Even the 4-CD collection planned by the Sterns label, of which the 2-CD Francophonic - Africa's Greatest - A Retrospective - Vol. 1 1953 - 1980 is the first half, can only scratch the surface of Franco's work.

But the unique repository of knowledge which resides in the enthusiasts who people Sterns—in particular, in this instance, in compiler and liner note writer Ken Braun—means that Francophonics is authoritative and revealing, setting landmark tracks alongside lesser known gems and constructing a vibrant portrait of Franco's singing, composing and guitar playing genius. It's also the first Franco anthology to treat its subject with due respect: Braun's 48-page liner booklet is a mine of valuable information, about both Franco's music and the turbulent society in which he lived and about which he sang. The booklet includes some two dozen rarely published photographs of Franco and key members of his TPOK Jazz lineups.

Everything about Franco was larger than life, not just his discography. His full name was Francois L'Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi. One of his several nicknames was The Sorcerer of the Guitar (as with the American bluesman Robert Johnson, tales were told about how he acquired his skills). His love-life was of epic proportions. His political savvy was acute, allowing him to thrive as a poet of the people, mostly unharassed, through the final years of a repressive colonial regime, a civil war, and, from 1965, the Africanist but deeply flawed reign of President Mobutu Sese Seko. Like Elvis Presley, he began his career as a slim young man but, with success, ballooned to a mountain. He never really "made it" outside Africa, dying before world music hit the big time, but to most Africans of his generation, not just in Zaire but all over the sub-Saharan majority of the continent, he was and remains, indisputably, the greatest, Le Grand Maitre.

Franco was born in 1938 and brought up in Leopoldville, the colonial capital (renamed Kinshasa in 1966). He had little formal education, musical or otherwise, but showed an early aptitude for the guitar, making his first instrument at the age of seven. He joined his first band, Watam (The Delinquents), a few years later. In 1953, aged 15, he was signed to the Loningisa (Shake It) label with a 10-year contract. Francophonic kicks off with a track from his first session, "Esengo Ya Mokili" (Pleasure in this World), on which Franco, playing an imported guitar provided by Loningisa, accompanies vocalist and Watam band mate Paul Ebengo.

Mentored by the older Watam guitarist Henri Bowane, Franco went on to develop a singular, and ultimately hugely influential, guitar style which borrowed, in roughly equal proportions, from "rumba" (the generic term applied to Latin American-informed Congolese music) and indigenous folk roots. Chord rather than single note-based, and capable on occasion of expressing the most subtle and fragile lyric beauty, Franco's guitar style, like his singing, was more typically "rough," piling variation upon variation on top of a simple riff or set of changes with mesmerizing effect.

The development of Franco's playing, which reached maturity towards the end of the 1960s, is documented on Francophonic's first disc, which spans 1953 - 1971. The disc also marks the expansion of Franco's OK Jazz to a 14-piece, with reeds and brass, around the mid-1960s. (The band later became Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz, The Almighty OK Jazz, generally known as TPOK Jazz. In the 1980s, with its bevy of singers, it grew to a 23-piece). 1962's "Sansi Fingomangoma," in which Franco ostensibly invites his listeners to a dance party, but which could instead be referring to the movement which eventually put Mobutu in power, is an early example of the mbwakela (coded metaphor) lyrics by which Franco was able, most of the time, to avoid overt trouble with authority (he was nonetheless imprisoned twice). Several other rare as hens' teeth tracks are included on the disc.

The second disc, spanning 1973 - 1980, presents Franco in the full glory of his new maturity. Track titles are shorter, playing times are longer, and the band's guitarists, led by Franco, display their collective brilliance on the extended instrumental jams, known as sebenes, which follow a tune's introductory, vocals-led choruses.


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