Some people earn their nicknames. The title of “Sorcerer of the Guitar” certainly fit Franco like a glove. His imaginative, lightning-fast fretwork helped shape Congolese rumba into its recognizable form, and adapted to the faster beat of soukous. In many ways he became the music’s most visible international face, a huge, incandescent talent.
Born François Luambo Makiadi in Sona Bata, a village in the Lower Congo, his family moved to Leopoldville, the capital of the then-Belgian colony, when he was young. The boy was exposed to music early, particularly the evolving Congolese rumba style, a mix of native and Cuban sounds. By the time he was 11 he owned a guitar and at 15 he made his recording debut, working in the house band for the Loningisa record label, where bandleader Henri Bowane began calling him Franco.
Although studio work was ample, it didn’t quite satisfy his soul, so in 1955 he put together a group to play regularly at the O.K. Bar. They became known as O.K. Jazz, their signature song “On Entre O.K., On Sorte K.O.” It wasn’t long before they’d become one of the country’s major acts.
Throughout his career, Franco never veered away from clashes with authority; the first came in 1958, when he was jailed for a traffic offense. Such was the measure of his popularity that crowds were waiting to greet his release. But even he knew when to keep a low profile. As the Congo gained independence in 1960, he judged it safer to keep himself and his musicians out of the way for a while, and they left for Belgium, where they recorded and played often.
But by 1965 he was firmly established back in Kinshasa, where he prospered. He controlled what was effectively a musical empire but still regularly delivered the goods on record and onstage. He recorded as often as he wanted, often letting songs expand to fill out entire LP sides with glorious playing, and offering gigs that stretched until the wee hours.
Successful as he was, he didn’t shy away from political issues in his songs. Sometimes, they were banned. On a couple of occasions, when he overstepped the unwritten line, he ended up briefly in jail. But trying to hold him for long was impossible. He might be a rich man, but the people had taken him to their hearts.
In the 1970s, as the laid-back sound of rumba speeded up and hardened into soukous, Franco adapted quickly and became a master of the form, keeping his extended solos in performance and recordings. Much of his work was in Europe, but one thing he never managed to do was crack America. There was one real attempt in 1983, but it proved to be a series of catastrophes.
By then, however, Franco’s music had changed. His lyrical stance moved, offering praise songs to the nation’s leaders and also to the rich fans who gave him gifts. He’d changed physically, too, ballooning in weight to almost 300 pounds. The one thing that that didn’t alter was his guitar playing, as magical and fluid as ever.
In 1987 rumors began to float around that Franco was ill, not helped when he released “Attention Na SIDA (Beware Of AIDS).” In 1989, when he died from the disease, his death sparked four days of mourning in Zaire.
Behind him, he left a legacy of literally hundreds of albums, and many careers that had begun through his bands, artists like Sam Mangwana and Papa Noel, who’d risen to their own fame. And his own music, of course, lives on with playing that’s as strong, if not as widely-known, as that of any Western guitar god.
Congo Colossus, Graeme Ewens (Buku Press)
An excellent biography of Franco by a very knowledgeable writer. Follows all the twists and turns of his career with stunning ease.
Rumba On The River, Gary Stewart (Verso Press)
Franco is just part of the story here, an insanely detailed history of Congolese rumba, but well worth reading in its own right.
The Rough Guide To Franco (World Music Network, 2001)
A strong career overview that illustrates perfectly how Franco got his nickname. About the only thing missing is the O.K. Jazz signature song. Worth owning for “Tailleur” alone.
Originalité 1957-1959 (RetroAfric, 1994)
The roots of Franco’s sound and the early sides with O.K. Jazz, including the classic “On Entre O.K., On Sorte K.O.” Wonderful stuff, the seeds of guitar genius.
Omona Wapi, Franco and Rochereau (Shanachie, 1991)
The meeting of two Congolese rumba giants, Franco and singer Tabu Ley Rochereau. The result is gloriously lyrical, the singing every bit as powerful as the fretwork. Short, but note a note wasted.