Franco & Le Tout Puissant OK Jazz - "Missile" (Francophonic Vol. 2)
The second and final volume of Sterns Music’s retrospective of Franco & TPOK Jazz is a fine document of their work during the 1980s. (The first volume, which was reviewed insightfully for Dusted by Richard Miller here, covered 1953-1980.) The late guitarist, singer, composer and bandleader François Luambo Makiadi—best known simply as Franco—remains an epic figure in African popular music. Referred to as Congo Colossus by his biographer Graeme Ewens, Franco ruled his nation’s music at a time when Congolese music ruled sub-Saharan Africa. During the heyday of Congolese rumba and soukous, many considered Congolese musicians to be Africa’s most sophisticated and professional; their reputation was due, in part, to the enormous size of the country (renamed Zaire during the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), as well as its prolific recording industry. The swirling, layered sound of numerous intertwining guitar lines known as sebene was especially innovative and influential. Franco and TPOK Jazz (Le Tout Pouissant Orchestre Kinshasa Jazz, or The All Powerful Kinshasa Jazz Orchestra) released a staggering amount of recordings: the liner notes to Francophonic estimate 1,250 releases. In short, Franco and TPOK Jazz were at the epicenter of a musical shockwave that swept Africa and continues to make waves two decades later.
Recordings like Francophonic provide a musical soundtrack to the dawn and early days of African national independence, and careful listeners can hear the gradual acceleration of influences and hybridization between disparate musical regions: African, Caribbean (“rumba”), and American (“jazz”) elements become so integrated and layered that it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish modern from traditional, or local from cosmopolitan. Welcome to music in the late 20th century. Franco’s most memorable contribution was as a bandleader, not necessarily as a virtuosic instrumentalist, nor as an especially creative songwriter. Like many bandleaders, part of Franco’s mystique lies in the ways his personal history and charisma intertwined with his music. The liner notes to Francophonic Vol. 2 by Ken Braun (provided in both English and French) do an admirable job of sketching historical and political contexts for Franco’s life and career in a sensitive, nuanced way—including some especially insightful, albeit brief, comments on Franco’s lyrics and wordplay. For the context that a retrospective compilation of Franco’s politically and socially charged music deserves, the quality of the liner notes makes the physical CD package worth having. (Listeners looking for more in-depth information should check out Ewens’s biography of Franco, and Bob White’s more recent book Rumba Rules is also highly recommended as a far-reaching meditation on Congolese music.)
There is no way for Francophonic to be representative of the vast body of recordings by Franco & TPOK Jazz, but the thirteen selections in Vol. 2 manage to cover a lot of ground over two and a half hours. The tracks are fairly long, averaging nearly 12 minutes in length, and they convey an important aspect of the band’s irresistible appeal: grooves that seem like they can go on forever without ever losing a dynamic forward motion. A mellow duet with Tabu Ley Rochereau named "Suite Lettre No. 1" opens the second disc with a beautiful example of OK Jazz’s long, close-harmony vocal lines—a signature part of their sound that can be heard throughout both volumes of Francophonic. Most often, though, the singers layer their disarmingly pretty sound on heavier, more dance-friendly grooves like "Nostalgie" and "Coopération," collaborations featuring Sam Mangwana in which Franco’s voice—relatively rough in its timbre and intonation—provides a contrasting texture.
And that is one of the most seductive, enduring aspects of Franco & TPOK Jazz: their music is filled to the brim with elegant contrasts. The sounds, the tunes and the arrangements are simultaneously dense and sparse, pretty and rough, complex and simple, sentimental and relentless, serious and light. The way these contrasts are made seamless is one of the things that make the sound of Franco & TPOK Jazz such a deep well for fans and musicians and an essential part of a golden age for Congolese music. For example, this collection will make some fans of Crammed Disc’s Congotronics releases realize the conspicuous influence that Franco’s guitar-driven rumba and soukous grooves had on the more "tribal/experimental" sounds of Konono No. 1. (It’s no accident that Konono No. 1’s full name—L’Orchestre Folklorique Tout Pouissant Likembe Konono Numero Un de Mingiedi—includes the same "all-powerful" distinction first coined by TPOK Jazz.) Just as crucial as the first Francophonic compilation, Vol. 2 should not be overlooked.
By David Font-Navarrete
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