Franco and TPOK Jazz

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Congolese guitarist, singer, bandleader and composer Francois Luambo Makiadi (Franco) “the sorcerer of the guitar” was 20th century Africa’s most important musician; he was the greatest. My opinion is amply supported by the recent release of two double CD retrospectives Francophonic Volume 1(1953-1979) & 2 (1980-1989). The sets demonstrate Franco’s amazing longevity, prolificacy, and innovation. From 1950 until his death in 1989, he record over a thousand songs, created a dominate style of African guitar playing, trained generations of musicians, and attained a status equivalent in Africa to Elvis or the Beatles in the West. These collections allow the listener to discover not only the evolution of a musical genius, but also the history of one of the world’s great dance traditions, Congolese rumba.

1953-1979 charts Franco’s progression from hotshot Afro-Cuban guitarist to a master bandleader. 1980-1989 features fluid guitar work and the distinctive fully mature rumba sound of TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant Orchestra Kinois or all-powerful Kinshanan Orchestra). Both collections include a 48-page booklet filled with photos, recording notes, translations, and biography. Compiler Ken Braun distilled Franco’s vast catalogue down to twenty-eight essential tracks on the first set and thirteen on the second; even the most fanatic Franco-philes have nothing but praise for his choices. I prefer the second for personal (memories of my lost youth working in Africa) and musical reasons. In the 80s OK Jazz stretched out in long complex jams (sebenes) of percussion, guitars, and horns, which build in tempo and rhythm, sounding a bit like an Afro-Latin Grateful Dead.

Franco was popular across Africa. Living in 1980s Cameroon, Franco’s music...

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...btleties, punctuated by horns, and occasional choruses by Franco’s favorite singers, culminating in the sebene, a race between drum and guitar. Guitar skills undiminished, the aging Franco began to use his rich baritone to admonish listeners on the social issues of the day. The complexity and depth of these epics earned him the nickname “the Balzac of Africa.” Braum’s tight selection insulates the listener from Franco’s later misses (drum machines and occasionally monotonous instrumentation). 1980-1989 is a triumph and amply demonstrates why OK Jazz was revered and all-powerful.

Franco and OK Jazz were one of the world’s greatest bands. Congolese music remains sadly under represented. You owe it to yourself to discover Franco’s musical legacy and these CDs. Franco’s music remains as vital and thrilling to me after thirty years of listening and dancing.
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