Born L'Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiada, 9 September 1939, Sona Bata, Zaire, d. 15 October 1989, Kinshasa, Zaire. Arguably the greatest and most influential figure in the pantheon of contemporary African music, Franco's achievements up until his premature death in 1989 were awesome. He recorded some 180 albums, created a rhythm - rumba odemba - that became a permanent part of Zairean music and, through his band OK Jazz, showcased many of Zaire's top musicians, from Sam Mangwana to Dalienst, Youlou Mabial, Wuta May, Mose Fan Fan and Michelino. His organization was equally vast; three record labels - Edipop, Visa 80 and Choc - and, in the mid-80s, three separate bands - one, OK Jazz, in Belgium, and two in Zaire. He was born in a small village 78 kilometres from the Zairean capital, Kinshasa. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but Franco had other ideas. Armed with a homemade tin-can guitar and folk song repertoire, he played around the markets in Kinshasa before joining an acoustic group Bikunda.
In 1950, Bikunda became Watam. It featured two guitarists, Franco and Paul Ebongo Dewayon, and a rhythm section playing traditional percussion. Loningisa, a local record company, kept an eye on the group, and three years later Watam recorded "Bolingo Na Ngai Na Beatrice", the first of four hit singles. In 1956, OK Jazz, a 10-piece band that would later more than double in size, was born. OK meant two things: Orchestre Kinois, Kinois being a citizen of Kinshasa; OK were also the initials of an early sponsor, Omar Kashama, who ran a bar called Chez Cassien OK Bar. At this time, Zairean music was deeply influenced by Latin-American styles - bolero, cha cha and rumba. In 1960, Franco's love affair with a woman called Majos inspired a set of classic love songs and a rumba style that would form the basis of his later, extended lyric satires. While Kalle and his young singer Tabu Ley developed new dances and styles, Franco stuck with the rumba and developed his own, faster variant, which he named rumba odemba.
Later he added new dance rhythms, and incorporated much of Zairean folk song into his approach, but rumba odemba remained the foundation of his music. Franco's lyrics made as much impact as his rhythms: his earthy vocals and love of street wisdom and gossip created memorable songs and defined a new style that looked, not to Belgium or Latin America, but back to Zaire itself. With his big, gruff, conversational voice, Franco sang about everyday issues in tones that seemed to boom from the back of a Kinshasa taxi rather than the tonsils of a lovesick rumba star. As if to point up the contrast, he surrounded himself with backing singers whose fruity tones conjured up the energy and gusto of a barber shop close-harmony quintet. Much of this early output is still available on a series of albums titled Authenticite. Of his mid-period work, the double-album 20th Anniversaire (1976), also still on catalogue, is a particularly fine example. By the late 70s Franco was able to fill dancehalls anywhere in Africa, and in 1978 he proved it by undertaking a 10-month tour of the continent with OK Jazz, which had now grown to a 23-piece orchestra: four horns, four guitars, bass, percussion and a chorus of back-up vocalists. It is this line-up that recorded the magnificent 1980 double-album 24th Anniversaire.
Franco's output was prodigious and his lyric themes many and varied. He sang about love - usually when it went wrong; related street gossip, current events and political issues. When President Mobutu decided to change the name of the country to Zaire in 1973, and to rename all the country's main towns and provinces, Franco toured the country explaining the changes. During general elections, he threw his weight behind Mobutu. And when things went sour, he would pick up what people were saying - complaints about the economy perhaps - and work them into songs. He created a position for himself that was unique: a man of the people, a folk musician who was also a confidant of the President. As such, he had a licence to sing about issues that most Zaireans only dared whisper about. He made a thinly-veiled attack on government corruption in "Lettre A Monsieur Le Directeur General" on the 1983 album Choc Choc Choc (recorded with Tabu Ley) for instance, and struck a similarly universal note in 1987 with the album Attention Na SIDA, a warning about AIDS. (It was AIDS which killed Franco in 1989, and also several members of OK Jazz.) Franco was not, however, immune from government sanctions.
He was imprisoned twice, once in the 60s for recording an indecent lyric, once when a minor official took offence over a criticism he made of Mobutu in a lyric, and jailed him on a trumped-up motoring charge. On the latter occasion, Mobutu himself ordered Franco's release, imprisoning the official in his place. Franco's songs about women and love were on an epic scale. On the 1984 album Chez Rythmes Et Musiques De Paris, the extraordinary track "12,600 Lettres A Franco' finds him taking on the role of an agony uncle to the constant stream of women who would write to him asking for advice about their marriages and relationships. On the title track to 1985"s Mario he attacks the common Zairean practice of rich, older women taking on a younger gigolo. For all the humour of his lyrics, he gave good advice, and his fans paid heed to it. His lyrics contained frequent references to other singers and during his time he quarrelled with a number of artists; both Tabu Ley and Kwamy were attacked in song. At other times he lent his name to commercial products: "Azda" advertised Volkswagen cars in 1973; "Fabrice" promoted a Belgian-based Zairean tailor in 1984; "FC 105" praised Gabon's national football team in 1985.
Usually far too busy recording and performing for his followers at home, or for expatriate Zaireans in Belgium and France, in the mid-80s Franco made some attempt to latch onto the growing UK and USA market for African music. In 1983, he toured the USA and played a stunning London concert. It was a route he intended to pursue until he fell ill in 1987 and was forced to limit his activities. In 1978, Franco was decorated by President Mobutu for his contribution to the development of Zaire's musical heritage. In 1980, he received the highest accolade the State could bestow, when Mobutu dubbed him Le Grand Maitre of Zairean music.
Authenticite, Volumes 1-4 (African Sonodisc)***, Les Grands Success Africaines (African Sonodisc 1972)****, 10th Anniversaire 1965 - 1975 (African Sonodisc 1975)****, 20th Anniversaire (African Sun Music 1976)****, Na Loba Loba Panda (African Sun Music 1977)***, African Party (African Sun Music 1977)***, Africain Danses (African Sun Music 1979)***, 24th Anniversaire (FRAN 1980)***, Mandola (Edipop 1981)****, A Paris (M 1981)***, with Sam Mangwana Co-Operation (Edipop 1982)***, Chez Fabrice A Bruxelles (Edipop 1983)**, with Tabu Ley Choc Choc Choc (Choc Choc Choc 1983)**, L'Evenement (1983)***, Chez Rythmes Et Musique De Paris (Genidia 1984)***, Mario (Choc Choc Choc 1985)***, A Nairobi (Edipop 1986)****, Bois Noir (Rhythmes Et Musique 1986)****, Originalit‚ (RetroAfric 1986)***, Attention Na SIDA (African Sun Music 1987)***.
20Šme Anniversaire Volumes 1 & 2 (Sonodisc 1989)****, Testement Ya Bowule (Sonodisc 1990)****, Kita Mata Bloque (Sonodisc 1990)***, J'ai Peur (Sonodisc 1990)***, Eperduement (Sonodisc 1990)***, Mario & La R‚sponse de Mario (Sonodisc 1993)***, The Rough Guide To Franco (World Music Network 2001)****.
Source: Encyclopedia of Popular Music