Arts & Culture News & Analysis

Who was the real Franco?

Who was the real Franco?
  • PublishedAugust 15, 2018

The DRC’s Franco, and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, remain two of the most musically as well as politically influential artists in Africa, despite both being dead. Franco, who would have been 80 this year if he had not died relatively young of AIDS, remains a stable household name in Central and East Africa, even as the countries where his musical style dominated go through various kinds of political turmoil. As the DRC prepares for its long-delayed elections, Arjun Sajip reassesses the music and politics of Franco Luambo Makiadi.

Not many musicians’ deaths are met by continent-wide grief, hundreds of thousands thronging the streets of their hometown, and four days of state-decreed mourning. But this was the case for François Luambo Makiadi when he died in 1989. Sobriquets stuck to him throughout his career – ‘the Sorcerer of the Guitar’, ‘Yorgho’ (godfather), and, as he liked to be addressed, ‘Grand Maître’. But he was best known throughout Africa simply as Franco. 

Congolese rumba was not his creation, but he redefined and popularised the genre until, transformed into the galvanising style known as soukous, it dominated Africa’s airwaves for decades. He became one of the continent’s best-selling and most beloved artists, and remains a household name in much of Africa. He would have been 80 on 6 July.

But Franco’s rapturous grooves and infectious melodies belied a darker dimension. He amassed a level of power unheard of for most artists, and did not always use it well. Most famously, his tightrope tango with his country’s ruler – the fearsome dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – saw him alternate veiled criticism of the regime with outright paeans to Mobutu. It was a fascinating relationship that stands as a strange case study of the politics of Zairean music, the power of art and the art of power.

To fans of African music of the 1970s and ’80s, Franco’s life story is well known. Born in Sona Bata in Bas-Zaire, he was a prodigy who fashioned his own guitar at the age of seven. When his father died four years later, Franco dropped out of school to provide for his family; his professional debut came when he was 12, in a band called Watam (‘the Delinquents’), and his reputation grew so strong that he was signed to a 10-year contract shortly after his 15th birthday. 

He would have to wait seven years before becoming bandleader, but when he did, in 1960, he truly ruled the roost. He was one of African pop music’s largest figures until his death, probably from AIDS, in 1989.

Franco was large in more ways than one. The riches he amassed abetted a legendary appetite. A skinny tearaway in his teens, he eventually swelled to a weight of 140kg; once, in a strange display of power, he attempted to eat an entire goat in front of his hungry musicians. 

But his voracious intake of food was matched by his incredible output of songs. He and his band, OK Jazz (which became TPOK Jazz), released an average of two new songs a week for 30 years – well over a thousand in total. (The ‘Jazz’ is misleading – other than horn sections and increasingly long tracks, Franco’s music had little in common with American jazz.)

Redefined dance music in Africa

Such productivity would mean little if the music was not of such high quality, and so influential – but Franco redefined dance music in Africa. Congolese rumba had three key features: its Cuban-influenced rhythms, its foregrounding of lyrics that carried their own eloquent Lingala rhythm above the clavé beat, and what was known as the seben – an instrumental interlude featuring at least two duelling guitars that lifted the song to fever pitch. 

Franco didn’t invent the seben, but he popularised the restructuring of rumba songs, placing the seben at the end rather than the middle and employing a distinctive thumb-and-forefinger picking style instead of a plectrum to create a mesmerising sonic mirage of two guitar lines. This amplified an already guitar-heavy line-up: bass, rhythm, lead and – often played by Franco himself – ‘mi-solo’, a bridge between lead and rhythm.

It was a magic formula – a standard verse-chorus structure followed by a delirious guitar rave-up – that reached its peak in the early 80s with songs like Sandoka, Tuti, Mujinga and Zala Sportif. 

And as Franco grew, so did the music. These four songs averaged 11 minutes each, facilitated by advances in recording technology that meant LPs (long-playing albums) were increasingly in vogue. Bina Na Ngai Na Respect, sung from the point of view of a woman asking to be treated respectfully while on the dancefloor, was a hit that mutated and evolved throughout its near 18-minute duration.

Galvanic guitar pop soon found its way to Kenya, where Congolese musicians often toured; Orchestra Super Mazembe, which enjoyed an international hit with the gorgeous nine-minute Shauri Yako, was a ‘Kenyan’ band whose members were entirely Zairean. 

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 Nº1 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. NA

Written By
New African

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