Franco & le TPOK Jazz – ‘Francophonic’
Practically everything written about François Luambo Makiadi, a.k.a. Franco, will assure you that when it comes to African music, there is simply no beating him. Even articles or anthologies sensible to the fact that ‘Africa’ is not one place, and that ‘African music’ is a huge kaleidoscope of styles rather than one genre, still affirms that Franco is, you know, the guy. Fela Kuti might be more well known in the UK– presumably just because of the fact that Fela sang predominantly in English, albeit pidgin – but in terms of fame, stature, influence and even physical size (at one point he weighed 300 pounds!), Franco takes the top prize every time. To let the statistics speak for themselves, his career lasted around forty years; he released roughly 150 albums and three thousand songs, of which Franco himself wrote about one thousand; while Franco’s band fluctuated in size throughout the years, at one point it included forty musicians. That band, founded in 1956 in Leopoldville, then-capital of the Belgian Congo, as OK Jazz, went on to become TPOK Jazz, le Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinois Jazz – the All-Powerful Kinshasa Jazz Orchestra.
In spite of all this fame and influence, it has been relatively difficult to get hold of Franco and OK Jazz’s music, in the Anglosphere at least. There are compilations of some of OK Jazz’s early material, but they only represent a fraction of the band’s power, and at any rate, most are out of print now. They’ve all been rendered irrelevant anyway by Stern’s marvellous two-volume ‘Francophonic’, which is about one of the best retrospective compilations you could wish for for a musician. This first volume includes two CDs focussing on the earliest years of Franco’s career – starting from a track from his very first session in a recording studio, made at the age of 15, three years before OK Jazz – up to his stay in Brussels in 1980 (the second volume covers the ‘80s). In addition, the liner notes are so extensive that they practically constitute a book.
While this is a lovely package, it wouldn’t matter a jot if the music was no good, but of course it is fantastic. The earliest material on here is relatively similar to much of the other Congolese music that was being produced in the late ‘50s – largely influenced by Afro-Cuban music, but with the instrumentation slightly changed to create a distinctively Congolese sound. The main ingredient that separated this from Cuban music was the electric guitar, of which Franco was one of the undisputed greats. This early track typifies that sound, with its blend of languages including French, Spanish, Lingala and nonsense rhymes.
Although Franco wasn’t the founder or lead singer of the band, his guitar – and forceful personality – soon became the main focus. OK Jazz became very successful very quickly, and there were many line-up changes as members came and went and the band grew and grew, in both success and number of members, over the years. There’s not point trying to detail all this, partly because it’s a very complex story and partly because I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as Ken Braun does in his notes to this boxset – so the next big change that’s worth pointing out is the revolution in Congolese music that became known as soukous. Franco didn’t event the style – in fact, he was apparently slightly late in picking up on it – but boy, was he good at it.
One of the keys to the style is the part known as a sebene, where the track tempo changes and the guitarist really steps the whole track up a gear. Unsurprisingly, this was where Franco shone. See if you can listen to this, originally recorded in 1973 by the band now named TPOK Jazz, without smiling.
‘AZDA’ wasn’t one of TPOK Jazz’s biggest hits, but it eventually became more popular outside of the Congo and was the band’s most successful record in Europe for a long time. This is hilariously ironic, given that it is about a subject of such local interest: it’s an advert for a particular Congolese Volkswagen dealer (the song’s “vay-way” refrain is a local pronunciation of ‘VW’), who had provided each member of TPOK Jazz with a new car in return. Still, who cares about commercialism if the music sounds this much fun?
You can hear how much the band’s sound had changed from their earlier records, as the songs expanded to allow for more flowing melody lines, more expansive guitar parts and more instruments overall. The band, too, only went on to become more successful and even bigger – eventually Franco set up two completely different line-ups of the band, one for playing at home in Kinshasa and for one touring, based in Belgium. The only constant was Franco himself, sometimes both singing and playing lead guitar, sometimes not even writing the song, but always playing incredibly intricate guitar parts that never lose sight of danceability despite their complexity.
As I said above, there’s too little space to outline the whole story, but this boxset really is the only thing you need to start listening to this absolute giant of world music. Beginning as one of many similar Congolese bands, OK Jazz eventually eclipsed all others in terms of success and longevity, and Franco, as head honcho, has an assured place in the musical palace of the greats. With two CDs of uniformly great music, a great selection of tracks, and very thorough notes and photos, this compilation a fitting tribute to the great man, the ‘Congo Colossus’ known to friends and rivals alike as ‘The Sorcerer.’
Apparently the ninth of fifteen songs in a two-hour broadcast!