Franco. A single word that needs no elaboration. In the Africa of my youth and young adulthood, Franco was the name of only one man. Mention of the name ignited the stored sounds of his music in one’s brain, and visions of the towering figure that he was. It still does for me.
I prefer his African name of Lokanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi. Meaningful. Beautiful. Authentic. Symbolises the struggle to break free from the chains of colonial brainwashing that turned us into half-baked Europeans. However, today is not the moment to address the vast and important subject of our slave names. Music and the politics of mind control is on my mind. It is to that I must turn.
Franco, the leader of L’Orchestre Tout Puissant Oscar Kashama, more popularly known as T.P. O.K. Jazz, he whose voice and guitar brought pleasure to millions, was among the last century’s greatest innovators. In recent years, my enjoyment of his music has been enhanced by the availability of translations from Lingala to English on the Internet.
I now understand the culture and politics that shaped this greatest of Africa’s musical poets.
Franco left us a song that I treasure more than the rest of his outstanding works. It is a song that is as musically beautiful as it is politically depressing. It is at once a reminder of Africa’s dark years of collapse and a commentary on the sycophancy that buttresses the personalised rule that continues to strangle parts of Africa.
The song preserves a great example of the artiste as a tool of a dictatorship; of the power of a musician as a purveyor or practitioner of partisan politics; and of the struggle for survival in a dictatorship.
The song summarises the relationship between Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi and Field Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga, two men who wielded enormous influence in the Congo Free State, with the intellectually more creative one at the mercy of the ruthless ruler of the land.
This past weekend, my wife and I pulled out our decades-old copy of that song - Candidat na biso Mobutu - a propagandist song of praise for the Zairean dictator that was part of his re-election campaign in 1984.
Zaire (Congo Free State) was a one-party state ruled by Mobutu through his Mouvement Populaire de la Revolution (MPR). Not surprisingly, the Movement had “chosen” him as its sole candidate in the presidential election that was to be held on July 29, 1984.
Whereas his “victory” was a given, Mobutu, who had already ruled his country for 19 years, needed to legitimise his rule with a resounding “yes” vote. So, he undertook a countrywide campaign, buoyed by Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi’s freshly composed song. It is said that the record, funded by the government, was distributed freely to all Zaireans who wanted it.
The outer record’s outer jacket has photos of the president, wearing his trademark hat. Madame Bobi Ladawa Mobutu, the president’s second wife, who is the “First Lady” of Zaire, walks next to the ruler. At the bottom of the front cover photograph are the Lingala words: Ganga Mpe Belela Kombo Ya Mobutu (shout and announce Mobutu’s name).
The music is Franco at his best. The song starts with an exhortation to Zairean men and women to “go to the streets, spread yourselves into zones, shout loud like lightning, for the Marshall’s candidacy, Mobutu Sese Seko.” The singers then ask the listener to frankly answer the question: “If not Mobutu, who else can look after the country?”
Like the griots that graced the palaces of Africa’s ancient kings, Makiadi delivers the answer with a hauntingly sweet, low-pitched voice. Mobutu is Zaire’s saviour, of course. Not by choice, but because Yabiso candidat Mobutu, Nzambe atinda yo (Our candidate Mobutu, God sent you). The praise singers warn against oppositionists and disloyal people in the ruling party. “Comite central, bokeba naba ndoki, Etumba naba ndoki esili te,” the praise singers call upon the ruling party’s central committee to “watch out for sorcerers, for their provocations have not ended.”
Claiming to speak on behalf of all Zaireans, Makiadi declares that Mobutu is the candidate of even the patients in the country’s decrepit hospitals and of the prisoners in the dictator’s prisons.
The man that Makiadi praises is presiding over a kleptocratic and repressive regime, kept in power through murder or imprisonment of “the sorcerers”, bribery, patronage and foreign support and money. His wife is as corrupt as her husband.
A story is told of a cabinet minister who, upon learning that he is slated to be dropped in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle, flies to the presidential palace at Gbadolite, reportedly hands a cash gift of $1m to Madame Mobutu and returns home to await his fate.
When the cabinet reshuffle is announced, the minister has been promoted to deputy prime minister of Zaire.
Mobutu is re-elected with a 99.2 percent “yes” vote in 1984. Known as the Guide and Papa, the 53-year-old ruler is “the father of the nation.” He is looking forward to decades on the throne, to rule his realm into old age and to patronise his younger subjects as his “bazukulu” (grandchildren) and anoint his son Kongolo as his successor.
Makiadi’s international fame is at its peak. He is already creating another masterpiece that is to be recorded under the title Mario. At the age of 46, he is already called “The Grand Master of Zairean Music.” Interestingly, he is also known as the “Sorcerer of the Guitar.” He is looking forward to a long career before retirement, perhaps with plenty of time to share memories with Mobutu in their old age.
Five years after the great song about Mobutu, Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi is dead, felled by a natural illness. He is only 51 years old. Eight years after Makiadi’s death, Mobutu is overthrown by an invading force of Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese soldiers. He dies a few months later in exile in Morocco. He is only 66.
The lessons of these two giants’ mortality are quickly lost on us. We carry on as though we are special. Surviving rulers adopt Mobutu’s kleptocratic and repressive methods to sustain them in power.
Sycophants offer their praises and warnings against sorcerers, as they push for sole candidacies of the incumbent rulers. Mobutuism is alive and well. Franco’s song has crossed the borders. It shapes the nature of politics beyond the mountains.