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Franco & Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz - Francophonic Vol. 1: 1953-1980

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Artist: Franco & Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz

Album: Francophonic Vol. 1: 1953-1980

Label: Stern’s Africa

Review date: Jan. 8, 2009

Anyone who has developed a taste for African popular music of this and the previous century eventually runs across the music of Franco, a.k.a. Luambo, the Sorcerer of the Guitar, founder and leader of Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinois Jazz, or TPOK Jazz. When newbies begin to dig through the massive body of work left after Franco’s death in Belgium in 1989, hyperbole usually fails them: nearly two thousand songs, many of them the full length of both sides of an LP; direct influence on every generation of popular musicians across Africa and, indeed, across the world; and the nearly single-handed transformation of West, Central and East African guitar music from the light, French Caribbean sound of the 1940s to the dense textures and heavy social and political critique of African Rumba, punctuated with horn lines drawn from American R&B.

Until now, however, exploring the ins and outs of Franco’s work has been a task for serious collectors, especially with regard to his early work. Although there have been some attempts to put together retrospective collections, such as Sonodisc’s three-CD set Legend and the recent two-CD African Classics by Sheer Legacy, such attempts have had to deal with two competing demands. The first problem is the quantity of material Franco recorded over the 40-some years of his career, the afore-mentioned thousands of songs recorded in various studios or live locales across Africa and Europe, as well as re-releases of more popular songs under different titles. The second problem is the staggering length of individual songs, particularly in the middle of his career, when TPOK Jazz was the house band of the Republic of Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, and routinely spun out hour-long pieces. In releasing Francophonic Vol. 1, Stern’s carefully brings together a representative sample of Franco’s work, from the early days (“Esengo ya mokili,” a catchy acoustic guitar song the appropriate length for radio – just over three minutes – dates to Franco’s very first day in a recording studio in 1953) to nearly the last (the 1980 release “Nalingaka Yo Yo Te,” dense with guitars and horns, clocking in at nearly 11 minutes). The cuts, averaging seven minutes each, are organized chronologically over two discs, the second disc finishing off with three cuts each over nine minutes long. There are some old favorites in this collection, and guest appearances by everyone from Mose Fan Fan to Sam Mangwana, but plenty of less well known material as well, particularly from the early years.

The production problems presented by compilation recordings are rather different from those of either studio or live recordings, and are potentially exacerbated by the length and breadth of Franco’s career, so listeners may be excused for approaching Francophonic with a combination of enthusiasm and apprehension. Fortunately, this concern is unfounded: Stern’s Africa and Ben Turner of Fine Splice are both to be commended for their ability to preserve the sound of each original track, while minimizing the disruption as the collection moves from track to track. In addition, the liner notes written by Ken Braun (who also penned the notes for previous Stern’s retrospectives on Tabu Ley Rochereau and Mbilia Bel), while sometimes rather brief, provide both a general history of Franco’s life and career as well as specific details for each song, helping listeners who may not be fluent in Lingala, French, Spanish, local African languages, and whatever words Franco himself created for the occasion.

Highlights of the collection will of course vary from listener to listener. Those who have never heard Franco before would do worse than to begin at the end, with the thickly textured, sprawling songs on the second disc, such as “Lisolo ya Adamo na Nzambe” (“Conversation between Adam and God,” 1977) or the better known “Liberté” (1975), and then head back to hear the development of Franco’s style. But for those most familiar with Franco’s mature style – massed guitars, jagged horn lines, vocal lines thrown back and forth between as many as six singers – some of the earlier songs will be a revelation, and should go far to demolish the image of African Rumba as nothing more than Cuban jazz played on guitars.

Certainly, in many of the early songs the Cuban influence is inescapable, given that the songs are all cha-cha-chás: “Anduku lutshuma,” 1956, is an excellent example; “Tcha tcha tcha de mi amor” (1957) not only has the operative phrase in its title, the lyrics simply urge everyone to dance the cha-cha-chá. On the other hand, listen to “Sansi fingomangoma” (1962), sung in Franco’s mother tongue, Kintandu, in a style much closer to traditional Batundu style than anything heard in Cuba. The title refers to two native instruments used for dance accompaniment, sansi (a lamellophone similar to a kalimba or mbira) and fingomangoma, a small hand-drum. Here, although Franco substitutes electric guitar for the sansi and inserts a short saxophone solo in the middle of the song, there is no audible sign of Cuba. Then there is “Ku Kisantu kikwenda ko” (1965), which begins with a mysterious little street theater dialog, then segues into a guitar-bass-conga-cowbell song that would not sound out of place on a compilation of Ethiopian disco from the 1970s. One last example: “Boma l’heure” (1970), while structurally similar to Franco’s massively orchestrated pieces of the 1980s, uses acoustic guitars, congas, and a single saxophone to back him as he trades vocals with an all-female chorus. This melancholy yet danceable song on the subject of the position of women in Zaire is well paired with “Likambo ya ngana” (1971), an elegy for Franco’s late brother that features the all-female chorus and an accordion.

Francophonic Vol. 1 is an excellent introduction to the Grand Master’s work. Stern’s has once again come through for African music lovers.

By Richard Miller

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