Why is a Congolese musician who died three decades ago still one of the best-known entertainers in Africa? Graeme Ewens, author of Congo Colossus, the most definitive book on Franco, revisits the life and career of the dynamic guitarist, satirist, praise singer and witty social commentator.
Franco Luambo Makiadi is a name that has been firmly engraved into the hearts and memories of music lovers. The Congolese guitarist, composer, bandleader and folk hero was truly a legendary figure.
In a 40-year career, the once street child from the Lower Congo via Leopoldville (Kinshasa) grew to become one of the best known, most loved and most controversial personalities in Africa and the African diaspora.
On the way up, he earned several nicknames, sobriquets, epithets and honorific titles, progressing from Le Fou (Crazy Kid), through Franco de Mi Amour (Franco My Love), Sorcerer of the Guitar, Yorgho (Godfather), the Balzac of African Music, Grand Maitre of Zairean music, Officer of the Grand Order of the Leopard, and Congo Colossus.
Thirty years after his death, his music and heritage live on, even among generations of listeners who have been born in the interim.
Known as a dynamic guitar stylist, Franco was also a fearless satirist, lavish praise singer and witty social commentator with an oratorial delivery, who put local music on the global scene. He once said his declared mission was to ‘provoke, disturb and tell the truth’.
Although many of his wider audience outside Congo often had little understanding of the subtleties and nuances of his lyrics, they were entranced by the sweet beauty of voices harmonising in Lingala, the ‘language that sings itself’; the artistry of the compositions; the power of his band’s delivery, the hard metallic attack of his guitar picking and the mystique that surrounded him.
Franco’s music was one of the few consistent elements of Congolese life, from the latter days of colonialism in the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, linking the various functions of traditional music with the development of popular culture. He used music to inform, educate, amuse, provoke, satirise, praise and ridicule, as well as for unalloyed pleasure.
He was a natural entertainer and a passionate performing artiste, who liked to excite a crowd and was never happier than when making his audiences dance.
The music star was one of those rare characters who can justifiably be described as larger than life. Physically, he grew to weigh in at 140 kilos/300lbs (nzoto kilo) and his prolific output of recordings has been estimated at over 1,000 self-penned compositions from a total of more than 3,000 OK Jazz songs, and more than 150 albums. His band, the legendary Tout Puissant (All Powerful) OK Jazz, had more than 40 musicians (often with a reserve team playing at home while the Grandmaster was away on tour).
He performed in at least 20 African countries; launching careers of many subsequent superstars.
His career spanned four decades.
When he died at the age of 51 in 1989, he left behind 18 children.
Sam Mangwana, a musician who sang with Franco some of his greatest hits, said this of him: “Franco was unique. Like Shakespeare or Mozart combined with Pele or Mhuammad Ali. He is irreplaceable. The sort of man who appears once every 100 years.”
But his popularity was inevitably balanced by jealousy, and coloured by conflict, controversy and the gossip of ‘radio trottoir’, which implicated him without proof in sorcery, political intrigue, exploitation of musicians, drug smuggling and corruption.
Born in the country town of Sona Bata, Lower Congo in 1938, the young Francois Makiadi (‘ meaning born to suffer’) grew up in the capital city Leopoldville, later renamed Kinshasa after independence.
His widowed mother Makiesse had moved to the city, where she sold goods from a stall in Wenze Bayaka market at Ngiringiri. There, as means of attracting customers, Franco developed his guitar picking technique on a home-made tin can instrument. He first caught the eye of professional musician Paul Dewayon, whose band, Watama was popular with the city’s young, self-proclaimed ‘Yankees’ and ‘bandits’. Dewayon gave the young player his first proper guitar at the age of 11, and from there he never looked back.
His playing style was influenced and encouraged by the Belgian guitar-playing record producer Bill Alexandre, who ran the CEFA studio, one of the several European-owned production houses in pre-independence Congo.
Franco then joined the Loningisa (studio, coming under the tutelage of Henri Bowane, one of the country’s first popular music stars, who began calling him Franco.
Also supported by Joseph Kabasele, leader of the country’s most innovative ‘international’ group, African Jazz, the young man played sessions on numerous studio productions.
Evolving from a group of colleagues known as Bana Loningisa, Franco was one of the founding members of OK Jazz, named after the OK Bar, where they first played under that name in June 1956.
The original OK Jazz line-up included Jean-Serge Essous (sax), Landot Rossignol (vocals), Roitelet Munganya (bass), De La Lune Lubelo (guitar) Bosuma Dessoin (congas) and Pandi Saturnin (percussion). Singers Vicky Longomba and Edo Nganga joined them for their first recording sessions, and in the following years, the revolving door of OK Jazz saw many more names come and go as this new musical movement took off.
The rhythms were mostly borrowed from the imported Afro-Cuban sounds popular at the time combined with local styles such as agwaya, yembele, odemba and keba. The emerging style became generically known as Congolese rumba even though other Latin styles were adapted and re-appropriated including merengue, pachanga, tango, cha-cha, and mambo.
Franco (right) performs in Brussels, Belgium, in 1987.
Sung invariably in the tonal, inter-ethnic lingua-franca of Lingala, Congolese rumba became a Pan-African favourite, spreading to west and east Africa. Evolving into soukous, cavacha, madiaba, kwasa kwasa, ndombelo among others, it has remained the only regional style that is enjoyed across the continent.
Sweet vocal harmonies and blistering guitar solos were the key elements that attracted mass audiences. As the major Congolese star to both play guitar and sing, Franco stood out.
His youthful looks and musical energy turned him into a pop star by the age of 16. He endorsed brands of clothes and shoes and was provided with sponsored transport, a Vespa scooter, which saw him briefly locked up for driving offences, and then an American automobile. He also had the support of many influential moziki – enterprising young women who ran social clubs and mutual savings schemes. His primary audience would always be the people of Kinshasa’s cité indigene, who loved him as one of their own, notably because his music drew more from Congolese roots rather than the faux Spanish internationalism of his rivals in the African Jazz camp: Tabu Ley Rochereau and Docteur Nico.
Franco described OK Jazz as a family, with prodigal sons always permitted to return at any time. And there were frequent defections, rivalries and bust-ups among the vocalists.
Nonetheless there is a huge rosta of members who went on to do great things under their own names: Vicky Longomba, Kwamy, Mujos, Sam Mangwana, Youlou Mabiala, Verckys, Simaro Lutumba, Celi Bitchou, Mose Fan Fan, Papa Noel, Josky Kiambukuta, Ntesa Dalienst, Wuta Mayi, Dizzy Mandjeku and Madilu Systeme among others.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the old 78rpm records were superseded by 45rpm discs, which often carried one song over two sides, with the B-side featuring a blistering sebene (the improvised guitar-powered dance section), and later extended tracks on long-playing albums.
The ability to record longer tracks gave Franco more opportunity to create works that were often like musical novellas or operettas.
The content of Franco’s own compositions varied widely although he most often directly addressed the problems affecting the newly urbanised post-World War 2 generation, who had to juggle the business of modern living with the age-old customs of traditional life. He sang about everything – football, politics, sorcery, sexual and marital relations, and social problems. His love songs could be unravelled to reveal layers of double meaning and allegory that usually combined family advice with social commentary and satire.
The longer song format available on lp albums also gave more time for ornate arrangements and more space to improvise during the sebene – the characteristic feature of Congolese music that excites and entrances listeners, compelling them to take to the dance floor even when they do not understand the increasingly lengthy lyrics.
The compositions of his final years from Mamou (Tu Vois) in 1984 through to Mario (parts 1, 2 and Response) came at what was one of his most prolific periods.
The songs often occupied one or two full sides of an album (in the case of Mario), and the albums were released in rapid sequence. In 1983 there were no fewer than 10 official album releases.
Each listener will have their favourites, but Franco’s masterpiece was arguably, Attention na Sida (Beware of Aids), a prophetic composition which he had announced to the music trade with a personal letter.
Throughout the existence of the country known as Zaire, the careers of Franco and his generation were dependent on the patronage of President Mobutu, who seized power in 1965.
Mobutu recognised the importance of music to the Congolese population and all musicians were obliged to pay homage to him, for which they were well rewarded. Although Franco’s 1964 song Au Commandement (To Authority) likened him to Lumumba, the assassinated independence leader who Franco had first supported and later mourned in song, his relationship with the President was ambiguous, and while he recorded several official praise songs, some listeners have ascribed his social satires to thinly disguised political criticism that might have gone unrecognised by the dictator who once declared “Happy are those song and dance”.
In any case Franco was considered an unofficial ambassador for Zaire, and was awarded the country’s highest honour: the Grand Order of the Leopard.
Franco’s life was also marked by professional slumps, personal tragedy and disgrace. The death of his younger brother Bavon Marie-Marie in 1970 was one of the lowest points in his personal and professional life.
Bavon, who was two years younger, was also a guitar player and a rising star with huge popularity among young women. Franco’s relationship with his sibling was also ambiguous – he reportedly loved him and although he did not want to see him fall into a lesser career in show business, he did not provide equipment for Bavon’s band, Negro Success.
Bavon died in a road accident. He dove into a truck after an alleged altercation over a certain young woman.
Franco plunged into disgrace in 1978 he and several musicians were imprisoned for obscenity in a couple of songs that were released on cassette and rapidly withdrawn.
Despite these awkward episodes, and his sad deterioration at such an early age, Franco’s heritage is a joyous one, recalling the days of the ‘Belle Époque’ when Leo la Belle evolved into Kin Kiesse, the dancing heart of the Congo. In Congo and certainly in Kenya, his music and spirit live on. In his short life, Franco had achieved unimaginable success.