Who was the real Franco?

Author:Sajip, Arjun
Position:Arts/Music - Franco Luambo Makiadi - Biography

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 Francois Luambo Makiadi when he died in 1989. Sobriquets stuck to him throughout his career--'the Sorcerer of the Guitar', 'Yorvho (godfather), and, as he liked to be addressed, 'Grand Maitre'. 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.)

Refined 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 clave beat, and what was known as the seben--an instrumental interlude featuring at least two duelling guitars that lilted the song to fever pitch.

Franco didn't invent the seben, but he popularised the restructuring or 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...

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