Franco: Another 33 years later and rumba legend remains an enigma

A name that has been firmly engraved into the hearts and memories of music lovers, young and old, is DRC’s Luambo Luanzo Makiadi Franco. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Franco’s death, all the band members and their brilliance combined could not understand how their yorgho (Godfather) had been executing everything from running the band as a business to producing the songs.

Yves Emongo was very clear. No one, he told this writer, can wear the OK Jazz brand better than Franco did. The son of L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi, better known simply as Franco, was trying to explain the fallout between the musicians and family members that led to the collapse of the Tout Puissant Orchestra Kinshasa (TPOK Jazz) and why all the musicians who oozed class while Franco lived could not sustain the band.
Michelino Mavatiku, who played the solo alongside Franco, said his departed compatriot was the "driver and leader of men." But the guitarist went further in admitting that after Franco’s death, all the band members and their brilliance combined could not understand how their yorgho (Godfather) had been executing everything from running the band as a business to producing the songs.

It was almost like, suddenly, Simaro Lutumba, Josky Kiambukuta, Madilu System, Mavatiku, Sam Mangwana, Ntesa Dalienst, Wuta Mayi, Rondot Kassongo, Michel Boyibanda, Ndombe Opetum, Djo Mpoyi… had all realised that all along none of them had mastered even half of what Franco had at his fingertips. Even put together, they were nowhere close to bringing out the same quality of music Franco was churning out like the water flowing from Ebale ya Zaire (The Congo River).
Interestingly, in 1985, Simaro Lutumba had produced a classic hit, Maya, that dominated airwaves in Kinshasa. Simaro had produced the ballad from Congo Brazzaville while his master Franco was away in Belgium.

Yet, with Franco no more, Simaro just couldn’t bring out the quality of music he managed with Maya, not even under their offshoot Bana Ok band. Some fans have cited Chandra as one the songs that probably met Franco’s taste. Few would disagree.
What is deeply ironic in all this can be seen when Mangwana, whose friendship with Franco could not be broken even whenever he quit the band, told Graeme Ewens that there was no arranger in OK Jazz.
“If you compose a certain thing, and as everybody has a certain sensibility, you have to reach agreement together. If you are not in agreement, it is the chef d’orchestre who decides, who will say 'look this thing is good but the other does not fit the style of OK Jazz. We think you should try this or that,’” Mangwana told the American author and official biographer of Franco.

So why were they unable to do the same?
And just to throw a darker shade on the enigma, saxophonist Rondot, who was closest to Franco and acted as his aide to his last breath, said the Grand Maitre was not hard to work with, “if you understood him.”
Perhaps nobody understood him; not Yves Emongo, not Rondot himself, not Simaro and probably not even his own mother. Like the man himself used to say, his songs told half the story; the listener had to fill in the rest – and the same applied to any attempt to understand the man and his motivation in life.

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The Diamond for sale
In the song, Mino ya Luambo Diamant, Franco was almost explicitly prophetic. “Mokolo boko yoka na kufa na liziba, mino ya Luambo bolongola boteka diamant (the day you will hear that I am dead in the pond, remove the teeth of Luambo and sell like diamonds).
Graeme Ewens, in the biographical book, Congo Colossus: The Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, says it was on Friday, October 13, 1989, that BBC2 television had scheduled an episode of their series ‘Under African Skies,’ about the music of Kinshasa, which would show Franco in his prime and then, sadly, in those last weeks of his life.
However, that same morning, BBC World Service radio news announced that Franco had died the previous day, on October 12, in a Belgian hospital.

“The news of Franco’s death came as a hard blow. To the people of Zaire it was a national tragedy; the main pillar of their country’s culture had crumbled, leaving a huge void,” Ewens wrote.
“He had provided virtually the only line of continuity and consolation through three of the most turbulent decades any country has had to endure.
“Although his death was not a surprise, it took some adjustment to realise that the Grand Maitre (Grand Master) was indeed a mortal. It seemed to many people as if he had transcended that state some time ago.”

For his immediate family, the prophecy in ‘Mino ya Luambo Diamant’ had come to pass. Not that they were fully conscious of this, but every music instrument in the band could have passed for a set of teeth – the sax being the canine here, the guitar making the incisor there, the conga his premolar… And all these teeth were like diamonds on sale.
As the musicians and the family bickered over Franco’s diamond teeth and attempted to haggle over it like it was some mivumba in the flea market, they probably could have done with Martin Cloonan’s and Michael Drewett’s book, “Popular Music Censorship in Africa.” But the book came 13 years too late.
Franco, the writers concluded, was an enigmatic and often extraordinary character.
“A high-profile artist with a quasi-diplomatic status in Africa, he was also known as ‘The Sorcerer’ and Yorgho (The Godfather) with many of the associations attached to those sobriquets,” the book notes.

Going dirty
The co-writers, who explore the tension between freedom of expression and censorship in the context of African music, might have premised their segment of Franco’s life on his two most controversial songs, ‘Jacky’ and ‘Helene,’ they help reinforce the argument that Franco was a man society simply struggled to understand.
Franco was only 22 when he tested the wrath of Mobutu in 1960 with the song ‘Luvumbu Ndoki’ about a sorcerer who indulged in ritual sacrifices. Mobutu had just been installed and saw himself as holding a hammer and everyone else who raised their neck as a nail that had to be banged six feet under.
Mobutu’s interpretation was that he was the sorcerer in the song and the ritual sacrifice was his execution of political opponents. Franco survived the hammer but not the handcuff as he was jailed. Whether Mobutu had interpreted the lyrics to well remains what Franco told his fans: interpret the other half yourself.

So it was that in 1978, the son of Sona-Bata, born July 6, 1938, released a cassette with three songs that shocked Kinshasa. There was Falaswa, a song that Franco used to perform with much excitement on stage as he jokingly mocked his fellow musicians.
Falaswa is about a man who had a short circuit system but blamed his wife like all societies did back then. They could not have a child and he eventually sent her packing. Once out, the wife is knocked up heavy at the first time of asking. She turns the tables on the man and the society joins her to mock Falaswa.

Of course, this was Franco at his best. But there came Jacky and Helene. Each of the songs touched on the most provocative of obscenities. There was sex in all manners, the lyrics running to the perverse in which Jacky feeds his boyfriend excrement in a bowl of soup.
Attorney General Kengo wa Dondo summoned Franco, who defended the songs he had produced in defiance after being flagged by the music board. His mother was called up to listen to the songs and offer her judgement on whether the lyrics were socially acceptable.

Franco pleaded that his mother was left out of this but Kengo stood his ground and Mama Makiese was in shock upon listening. On October 16, 1979, Franco and some of his band members were charged.
Ntesa Dalienst would explain what he told the court, that he only sang a verse that says “Mwama oh, Mwama oh, Jacky, Kitoko na yo ya Nyama” (Oh this girl, Jacky, she is a natural beauty). But some have argued that in calling Jacky nyama (meat), Franco alluded to virginity and its deflowering.
If AG Kengo thought he had understood Franco, let alone tamed him, he was on his own there. Franco did not let his creative works in the songs go to waste. At least for Helene, that is. In 1987, for an antithesis of the moral perversion in Helene, Franco produced ‘Attention na Sida’, his most poignant song and a campaign against HIV/Aids. He revived the solo patterns in Helene and gave it life in Attention na Sida.

But by then, Franco himself was ailing. On September 22, Rondot told Ewens, Franco was lying in bed when he suddenly sat up and demanded news of his band. When told they were playing in Holland that night, he struggled to get out of bed.
“My Tout Puissant OK Jazz are playing,” he said anxiously, “I must be there. Quick, bring the car and take me there.”
Franco was driven across the border to the Melkweg club in Amsterdam, and was slowly walked to the stage by his tour manager Manzenza and the guitarist Mayaula. A chair was pulled up and Franco called for his guitar, but he could only play a few bars.

“This was the last time the Sorcerer touched a guitar and the notes he played had a ghostly, foreboding quality. Unable to continue, Franco left the stage for the final time and returned to his bed,” Ewens wrote.
Back in Namur, his sister Marie-Louise and wife Annie, were at the bedside, along with the faithful Rondot. On the night of Wednesday, October 11, his old colleague Mose Se Fan Fan paid a visit to the Namur hospital which left him chilled with apprehension: Franco, whom he had last seen in full force, was barely alive, but he was still living.
Rondot recalls that during the night Franco was ridden by crises. His heart stopped beating three times, and twice Franco managed to resist. Eventually, the man who always found death unacceptable could struggle no more and had to come to terms with it. The next day, Thursday, October 12, 1989, the Grand Master was dead.

“Franco was unique. Like Shakespeare or Mozart, combined with Pele or Muhammad Ali. He was irreplaceable. The sort of man who appears once every 100 years. He left his mark on his own time,” Mangwana said.
For over 30 years, Franco stood like a Colossus over Africa. Like with most artists, the world struggled to understand Franco. And 33 years after his death, it is more of the same.

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