On entre OK; On sort, KO! Franco & the All Powerful OK Jazz
January 2, 2011 8:07 AM   Subscribe

When he was seven years old, Francois Luambo Makiadi built his own guitar. He would become one of the titans of 20th Century African music, Le Grande Maitre of the All Powerful Orchestre Kinois Jazz.

Franco and his band Tout Puissant OK Jazz were the foremost practitioners (and transformers) of rumba Congolaise, arguably the most popular music in Africa, but Franco is still largely unknown in the US and non-francophone Europe, even among aficionados of "world music." He barely toured the US, never sang in English and rarely adapted his music to international tastes, in part a reflection of his agreement with the government policy of Authenticitie.

Called the Sorcerer of the Guitar, for more than 30 years, Franco and OK Jazz sang about relationships, personal conflicts, death and bad behavior, (while many songs also had hidden meanings). He also responded to critics, while taking time to praise his tailor and a Volkswagen dealership. Franco and OK Jazz were hugely prolific, producing more than 2000 songs. When Franco died, reportedly of AIDS, the government declared four days of national mourning; his music was played non-stop on the radio without repeating a song.

OK Jazz musicians, singers and collaborators are a who's who of Congolese music: Madilu System, Papa Noel, Youlou Mabiala, Simaro, Ntesa Dalienst, Josky Kiambukuta, Tabu Ley, and the great Sam Mangwana (who said that a man like Franco came along only every hundred years), and many more.

Politically, Franco was no Fela: he was distressingly close to Mobutu, composing praise songs for the US-supported dictator, and even assisting Mobutu's move to appropriate Lumumba for his own rule. In return, Franco was named "Le Grand Maitre" (a title usually reserved for judges and scholars), exercised tremendous control over the music industry in Congo, and died a multi-millionaire.

His music was once available only as expensive imports, with the songs often butchered, but perhaps a new two volume retrospective (reviewed here and here) along with mp3s at iTunes, will make Franco more well known to those outside of Africa, where he is still revered. There remain untold hours of material to be digitized. Fortunately, there is Aboubacar Siddikh's youtube channel, and various blogs which feature long out of print Franco vinyl.

So, dive in: even if you don't know the languages, you will still lose yourself in those guitars, those glorious, glorious, guitars.

Be careful though: you enter OK, but you leave knocked out!
posted by williampratt (8 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Extraordinary post. Congolaise music is among my favorite in the world. Well done.
posted by mykescipark at 9:20 AM on January 2, 2011

I have nothing to add but my thanks for the work you've put in to this great post, so, erm, thanks.
posted by Abiezer at 12:15 PM on January 2, 2011

Thanks for posting this. I love Franco!
posted by mike3k at 2:15 PM on January 2, 2011

Another Franco fan here; I highly recommend those two 2-CD sets.
posted by languagehat at 3:07 PM on January 2, 2011

Excellent post.
posted by Wolof at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2011

For those of you with access to Spotify, here's a playlist I made of the Franco albums I found: Franco (338 tracks, only about 1 day of music not yet close to 4...)
and another of albums from African labels, mainly Congo & Kenya: Africa (1901 tracks)
posted by Morbuto at 4:39 PM on January 2, 2011

Great post. I wish comprehensive information about Franco and other artists were easier to come by. I love nearly all the '50s to 80's stuff I hear by Congolese artists, but it's tough to sort it all out, considering only a tiny fraction of what was recorded is even remotely possible to find these days.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:05 PM on January 2, 2011

338 tracks, only about 1 day of music

I have about 900 songs, which add up to a little over 4 days. I think most of the tracks I don't have are from the early years, so the remaining material would probably be another day or two. However, every time I think I have a certain era covered, I discover some new chunk of unreleased material. I only heard the Mobutu song recently, and I've been listening to Franco for 20 years.

I wish comprehensive information about Franco and other artists were easier to come by.

I highly recommend the blogs I mentioned, particularly worldservice. The guy has an incredible amount of knowledge about not just Franco but a lot of the music especially from the golden age of African music. His posts often go into considerable detail about who was playing, what the hidden meanings are, etc. This blog posts much more frequently and covers a lot of the much less well known artists (only a little bit of Franco). Actually, with the various blogs, I think classic African music is easier to find than ever.

There is a biography of Franco, Congo Colossus, which you can get off Amazon. I've just ordered Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire.
posted by williampratt at 6:25 PM on January 2, 2011

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