Friday, August 14, 2009

Franco: The James Brown of Africa

The James Brown of Africa

by Ted Gioia

My CD collection includes some cherished disks by a band called Franco & Le TPOK Jazz. These releases provide no list of personnel. They offer no recording dates or locations. There is not even a CD booklet, just a single sheet with simple cover art on one side, and blank white space on the other. There is no copyright notice, only an address in Paris, and a list of songs.

Until recently, this is how you typically encountered Franco’s music in the West. And you were lucky to have even that much. I got these CDs back in the pre-Internet days, via a small mail order house that brought these disks into the country from God-Knows-Where to serve God-Knows-What market for this kind of music. The mail order house eventually went out of business.

Yet Franco stands out as one of the leading exponents of African music in modern times, and his recordings still enjoy a cult following two decades after his death in 1989. This body of work certainly deserves to be better known, and under better circumstances might have found a larger audience even during the artist's lifetime—but Franco passed away before World Music emerged as an important commercial genre. During his career, he only enjoyed a small dose of the fame that might have come his way in today’s global village. Franco made just one tour of the U.S., in 1983, and even that visit was a modest affair. For the most part, his music is still a well-kept secret.

Perhaps the release of Sterns Music's Francophonic, Volume 1: 1953-1980 will go some way toward rectifying this situation. This reissue finally presents Franco’s work in a suitably grand setting: a lavishly produced two-disk reissue accompanied by a 46-page book.

Of course, the personnel on these recordings is still mostly a mystery. Francophonic tries to cast some light on the matter, offering a list of around 70 musicians who played with Franco at various points during his 35 year career. But don’t expect a track-by-track rundown. As for recording dates: if you get a year, be grateful and don’t expect more.

Yet the real mystery here is the music itself, which seems to defy the listener’s expectations at every turn. Although Franco’s band prominently displayed the word “Jazz” in its name, the music is not jazz in any conventional sense. Record stores, to the extent that they stock Franco at all (hah!) will put his releases in the African music bin. But play a song of his to a random sampling of your friends, and most (perhaps all) of them will guess that it is Latin music. In fact, if you had to sum up Franco’s soukous style in ten words or less you would say that it is the African music that sounds like it comes from Cuba.

A nice definition, but what a strange concept for listeners unacquainted with soukous. The idea of Latin jazz has grown familiar to us, but Latin-African music is something else altogether. I have speculated in other settings, that Latin and African cultural currents possess a residual affinity for each other that is leftover from the Moorish inroads into the Iberian Peninsula starting back in the 8th century. In other words, Latin music was stamped with an African sensibility almost from its birth, and later hybrids of these two musical languages inevitably show their family resemblance.

Still one marvels at the lineage that produced this Caribbean sound in Central Africa. For whatever reasons, Cuban bands such as Trio Matamoros and Sexteto Habañero found a receptive audience in the then Belgian Congo back in the 1930s. As indigenous commercial music styles developed in later years, these role models exerted a strong influence. When Franco began his music career in the 1950s, this Latin-inflected sound was pervasive in popular Congolese music.

But an African rumba is not exactly the same as what you would find in Cuba. On his hit song “AZDA”—inspired, strange to say, by a Volkswagen dealership—Franco builds the performance around a strange five-bar call-and-response pattern that would never fly in Havana. “Marie Naboyi,” another long track, starts off with a typical Congolese rumba beat, but abandons it mid-song in a restless search for some other, more insistent groove—the music goes through four distinct moods before coming to an abrupt halt. Other songs, such as “Ku Kisantu Kikwenda Ko” draw on more overtly traditional African material. Yes, a vague pan-global Latin ambiance predominates in this music, but one that is distilled through the distinctive vision of Franco.

Franco was born as Francois Luambo Makiadi on July 6 1938 in the village of Sona Bata, and raised in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. He made his own guitar when he was seven-years old, and when his father died four years later, the youngster began earning money by playing in public. Franco’s rapid ascendancy in the local music scene was little short of astonishing. By the age of 15 he had a recording contract. At his first session, he sang prophetically: “What a pleasure in this world to be famous.”

Franco had the good fortune to be playing guitar at a time when that instrument was coming to dominate popular music in other parts of the globe. Yet the way Franco (and his sidemen) played guitar had almost nothing in common with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and others who were changing the listening habits of youngsters in the West. Instead of raw single note lines, Franco built his band’s style around crisp, open-chords—often only two notes—that happily bounced around the beat. Major thirds and sixths and other consonant intervals play the same role in this style of performance that blues notes fill in rock-and-roll, reflecting the essential personality of the music.

But the ambiance of soukous is much different from what one would find in Western popular music of the same era. Franco’s sound has few dark shadows, and little of the threatening moodiness of rock. And though there may have been more technically accomplished guitarists than those who played with TPOK Jazz, few concocted a sweeter or more inviting sound.

Yet the guitar was only one ingredient in this music, which often relied on huge ensembles, far bigger than anything one would encounter in the world of rock-and-roll. Franco sometimes had as many as six vocalists on his payroll. And even a modest soukous band could find a place for several guitarists. But the horns also played an important role in Franco’s musical vision. They might engage in upbeat dialogue with the guitar, or else set up hypnotic vamps that carried the song forward as on the crest of a wave. Sometimes they sit out most of a track, only to make a sudden entrance when you least expect it.

Jazz fans will probably be unimpressed with the horn work here, which is a few steps below Bird and Trane, to say the least. But it is hard not to perk up when the band engages in a sebene, a trademark of this style of music. Here dancing guitars fall into a shifting pattern beneath a solo or riff. This is one of the happiest sounds in the whole global village.

On the other hand, the percussion parts here are far more low key than one would find in the Cuban music that inspired the soukous masters. Franco's recordings almost always convey an atmosphere of relaxed sociability, even when the tempo accelerates. Percussion parts are a cushion supporting the band, rather than (as with so many commercial acts in the West) a prod to raise the energy level of the other players. We find this same quality in many other styles of contemporary African music and derives, I believe, from a cultural heritage in which the pulse of a performance was more focused on entrainment (the technical term for synching of brain rhythms and external rhythms) than entertainment. But that, I’m afraid, is a subject for another day.

The lavish new reissue from Sterns Music, Francophonic, Volume 1: 1953-1980, will no doubt open up the ears of many first-time listeners to this artist. But even those who have long been familiar with Franco will find this compilation worth checking out. One reviewer has noted that just the booklet alone makes the set worth purchasing—which is hardly an exaggeration given how little context previous releases of Franco’s music provided. For the first time many listeners in the West will not only be able to enjoy this music, but also appreciate the circumstances that brought it to life.

Of course, you can groove to soukous without digging into its socio-historical setting. To many of its fans back in Kinshasa, this music was, I suspect, an escape from—rather than a response to—the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during most of Franco's career. And unlike other more overtly political artists in World Music, Franco preferred to avoid conflicts with authorities. His songs were an invitation to a good time, and not to a revolution.

And when he did address controversial issues it was often indirectly—Franco was skilled at what was known as mbwakela, the art of insulting or criticizing without be easily understood. For example, when he wanted to attack the Attorney General who had put him in jail (on obscenity charges), Franco did so in an ambiguous song about a tailor. In another song “Sansi Fingomangoma,” he demands “Let me go, let me go”—words that apparently refer to a festive celebration, but then again maybe not. You can probe deeply into these songs, or just enjoy them on the surface level without paying attention to hidden layers of meaning.

In truth, this artist’s music had such an optimistic tone that it was hardly suited for social criticism—certainly not like one might encounter in the work of, say, Fela Kuti or Caetano Veloso or Bob Dylan. When Franco took on the mask of a political commentator in a song such as “Bato Ya Mabe Batondi Mboka,” the music is lackluster. Franco moves into the minor mode on this song, and even this small shift seems to enervate his music. It is hard to imagine this artist becoming quite so popular if he had seen his work as a focal point for dissent and discontent.

And it is this celebratory tone that reveals the limitations of the frequent description of Franco as “the James Brown of Africa.” Certainly Franco—like Brown—thrived in live performance, and fed off the energy of the audience (check out some of the YouTube videos to get a sense of what TPOK Jazz was like in concert). But Brown was, recall, the hardest working man in show business, while Franco’s music seems more about holiday jubilation than working up a sweat. It comes as no surprise that Franco was unimpressed when Brown visited Kinshasa in 1969. He thought that Brown "danced like a monkey” and showed insufficient respect for ancestral roots.

Franco is now himself one of the great ancestors of World Music, the symbol of a time-honored tradition. When he died in 1989, at age 51, President Mobutu ordered a four-day period of mourning. Many of his fans are still grieving. Franco was one of those artists—such as Carlos Gardel or John Lennon—who inspired such passion among fans, that his loss still feels fresh decades later. His legend has, if anything, grown with the passing years.

Of course, Franco was hardly known in the US at the time of his death, and though he enjoyed a larger following in Europe, his audience there was mostly immigrants from Africa. But World Music is now a viable commercial category, and any list of its leading lights must include this seminal figure. It is gratifying that this past master finally has his music made available in a setting that does it justice.

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