Franco and Bavon: Two brothers, one lover and the tragedy of rumba prodigy
What you need to know:
Franco Luambo Makiadi had a brother, Bavon Marie Marie. The two brothers played guitar, composed songs and led bands. And, like they shared so much in common, so it was a woman – Marie-José Simplicie. Unfortunately, it was for the woman that Bavon died 52 years ago in an accident that left Marie-José without the lower limbs.
Franco Luambo Makiadi and Bavon Siongo shared blood in as much as they shared music talent. On solo guitar, they were virtuoso. In composition, they touched hearts. But the one thing that stood between them was a woman.
Marie-José Simplicie was her name. Better known as Lucie off the track of Bavon’s composition, ‘Lucie Tozongana,’ she was the woman said to have inspired Bavon’s stage name, Bavon Marie Marie, a woman Franco’s little brother was so madly in love with to the point of being enamored.
For Lucie, Bavon could have caught a bullet. A bullet kills, and although Bavon didn’t catch one, he died for her.
There are several conflicting accounts of what happened that Wednesday evening of August 5, 1970. Bavon died on the spot in that accident and Lucie had to spend a year in hospital nursing the stumps on the lower limbs she had lost.
“Beyond the basic fact of Bavon’s death at the age of 26, the precise how and why of it remains something of a mystery,” wrote Gary Stewart in his book, “Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos.”
At the time of starting research for this article, Rose Lola Selenge, a confidante of Lucie, was one of those with firsthand information. By time I got her contacts, she was no more. A lost chance.
However, Etoile du Congo magazine reported on Thursday, August 6, 1970, that “Bavon was killed yesterday at about 1am in a motor accident on Avenue Kasavubu in the vicinity of Bandalungwa-Kitambo Sports Complex (popularly known as Cosbaki) in Funa district of Kinshasa.”
Franco’s biographer Graeme Ewens in ‘Congo Colossus: The life and legacy of Franco & TPOK Jazz,’ says the accident was a culmination of the disagreement between Franco and Bavon that had simmered for some time.
“On the night, with Franco, Lucie and members of the TPOK Jazz band present, Bavon accused Franco of sleeping with Lucie,” Ewens wrote.
Lucie fled the ugly scene and hailed a taxi with Bavon in hot pursuit in his Renault 16. He caught up with them and packed the girl into his car and sped off… to his death near the Makelele bridge where he rammed his Renault into a Fiat truck parked along the road.
A day earlier, it is said Franco had checked into a hotel ahead of a concert but did not perform. Lucie had also arrived for the concert that featured different bands. She was a dancer but did not dance. Those who saw her there filled their own dots and tipped Bavon.
A member of the Franco family later said that Bavon had demanded that Lucie returns his son and that the young lovers argued over this more than what had happened in the hotel. The child, Aime Bavon Siongo, was living with Lucie’s mother in Kitambo.
For this article, Aime Siongo, now a pastor in Texas, US, asked to be given time, saying one day he will collect himself and speak about his parents.
“Regardless of what happened that night, death had pierced the shield of youthful invincibility and young Congolese had lost one of their earliest heroes,” wrote Stewart.
A genius among genius
Bavon Siongo was born May 27, 1944. His family wanted him to study and become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Their mother, Helene Mbonga, was grief-stricken on learning that the second son also wanted to do music.
Franco was already living large with music but Helene saw beyond his growing wealth; she was haunted by his lifestyle. Franco was a man who enjoyed the company of women and being a celebrity gave him more women than he could bargain for.
She told Bavon that musicians were the “bastion of scum and a nest of society’s spleens.” Her wish was to have a Kalaka (elite) among her descendants.
But fate had its way. In 1961, Bavon obtained music equipment and, with Empompo Deyes, Amba Zozo and Bumba Massa, started Les Cousins Bleus. Franco, who was by then openly discouraging relatives of his band members from joining music and insisting they studied to be “better than me who hustles,” was enraged. He stormed their practicing place and broke the equipment as he threatened to beat up José Kayenge who was housing Bavon’s music dreamers.
Because of the virulent opposition from his family, Bavon ran away from home and settled in Boma where, in 1963, he met Dino Vangu, who was still in school but gigging at Tati-bar with Orchestre Coeur de Lion. Soon they met Michelino Mavatiku Visi, who also lived in Matadi.
Michelino was already established on guitar but he was in awe of the prodigal Bavon, whose “love for music and expertise on guitar was beyond his age,” the veteran musician told this publication as he provided anecdotes on Bavon’s life and times.
Realising that his family was onto him, Bavon cut all communication until he realised that the anxiety he was causing his mother was driving her faster to the grave. He returned home and Helene reluctantly admitted that a living ‘scum’ was better than a dead one.
Bavon went to work in music, the family having given up on fighting his dream. In 1961, Orchestre Negro Succes was founded by four friends; Hubert ‘Djeskin’ Dihunga, Armando Brazzos, Johnny Pinnock and Léon ‘Bholen’ Bombolo. They needed a headliner so they contacted Vicky Longomba and used his rented bar, Quist, in Itaga as their base.
Barely a year later Bholen and Vicky had fallen out. Vicky packed up his equipment and returned to Franco’s TPOK, leaving Negro Succes stranded.
Ironically, it was Franco who came to their rescue. He had approached Bholen and told him he would give him instruments and material on condition he took in Bavon. Bholen agreed and on December 15, 1964, Bavon joined the Negro Succes. By then he had honed his guitar skills by learning to fuse RnB with rumba style from Papa Noel Nedule.
The band was in the clouds. They churned out hit after hit, including Libanga na Libumu – a lament by a woman that a stone has been planted in her stomach to keep her barren.
It was around this time that Bavon started seeing Lucie, and in a series of songs, he spoke of his adoration of her. His melodies and lyrics were just as infectious. Like in Lucie Tozongana (Lucie let’s reconcile) in 1966.
American veteran radio presenter Alastair Johnson, who has documented Bavon’s life, says Negro Succes spearheaded a youth movement that unsettled Franco’s band with street slang lyrics and a hip of fashion sense.
They also took the battle to TPOK, riling Franco by taunting his band in their sebene (instrumental bridge for dancing). Yet Franco still played the big brother to Bavon, like in 1966 when Dr Nico Kasanda and Tabu Ley fell out and the latter made a move for Bavon to take over the strings section.
The rivalry between Tabu Ley and Franco meant it would be sacrilegious of Bavon to join Afrisa. Franco had a good talk with his brother, who took the advice to heart and snubbed Tabu Ley.
Bavon was the Negro Succes’ star attraction. He was obsessed with his looks, which saw him use eyeliner and skin lightening creams. In a way, he was ahead of his time – musically and fashion-wise.He pioneered wearing braids in the 60s. Yet, apparently, Stevie Wonder did not start braiding until 1972.
Who was greater?
Some rumba fans with emotional attachment to TPOK take serious offence when you compare the two. Belgium-based TPOK devout follower Aboubacar Siddiq once ranted about how “Bavon owes his fame to being a brother to Franco.”
But Frank Bessem, writing in Musique d’Afrique, said Bavon’s way of playing the guitar sounded very much like his older brother, “but he played in a different style, slightly funkier and up-tempo.”
The hardest question is, could Bavon have overshadowed Franco had he lived longer?
From 1966 until August 5, 1970, the answer would have been straight forward. Musical productions in the period the two brothers were active makes it hard to see how Franco’s biggest hits between 1964 and 1970 could have matched up to Bavon’s.
Ngai Marie Nzoto Ebeba (1965), Chicotte (1966), or Marceline (1969) were all nowhere near Bavon’s Ngai Muana Ans, Libanga na Libumu, Marie Marie, Lucie Tozongana or Maseke ya Meme, the latter Bavon’s most outstanding composition.
Franco’s peak was the 70s to mid-80s.
Then there are those who point to production of the same composition. Franco remixed Bavon’s hit, Masekeya Meme. With Youlou Mabiala on the vocals, Franco leaves little for non-avid followers to notice the difference, but there is no doubt that he does not match the original.
Most ‘remixes’ rarely match the original in lustre. For instance, many still maintain Uganda’s Juliana Kanyomozi’s rendition of Philly Lutaaya’s Diana is lacking in that lustre that can only be gleaned from the original. But in doing Maseke ya Meme, Franco popularized the song and ensured Bavon’s lived on through his music.