Franco Luambo Makiadi was Africa's unrivalled guitar legend whose lilting music changed the sound of a continent. Twenty years after Franco's death, Congolese guitar maestro Syran Mbenza brings together a host of stars to celebrate his incredible musical legacy. Led by Mbenza, widely acknowledged as one of Africa's best guitarists, the album features the honeyed voice of Wuta Mayi and bassist Flavien Makabi from Franco's OK Jazz band, as well as leading musicians from the pivotal groups Quatre Etoiles and Kekele. Together, they deliver a dozen of the greatest Congolese tracks of all time and celebrate Franco's dictum 'En entre OK. En sort KO!' (You arrive OK and leave knocked out!)
Twenty years after his untimely passing at the age of 51, Franco Luambo Makiadi continues to cast his larger-than-life shadow over African music. Certainly Africa's greatest, if not the sole, truly international pan-African music star, by the time of his death in 1989 Franco's music was heard throughout Africa, all over Europe and in North America and the Caribbean as well. His band OK Jazz was arguably the best Africa ever produced, as well as one of the longest-running, with a continual influx and departure of musicians during a thirty-four-year history.
The sheer number of Franco's recordings is overwhelming in number and in stylistic variety, spanning the Cuban-inspired 1950s, the rumba lingala of the 1960s, the authenticité and acoustic recordings of the 1970s, and the expansive big bands and lengthy songs of the 1980s. His music encompassed and reflected all the phases of Congolese pop music over four decades, creating and absorbing trends and influences, as well as establishing innovations and new directions.
Such a gargantuan musical legacy deserves to be celebrated, and this album brings together a host of Congolese talent to do just that. Led by Syran Mbenza, best known for his involvement with Quatre Etoiles and Kekele and widely acknowledged as one of Africa's best guitarists, and saxophone supremo Jimmy Mvondo, this album celebrates Franco's body of work and commemorates the twentieth anniversary of his death.
Syran's unique and masterful style shapes this recording and I have long maintained that he is the greatest interpreter of Franco's guitar style. Not only does he reproduce the fingering and fever of the music, but he improves on it. It is as if Franco is speaking through him, channelling his energy and emotion.
For this project, Syran called upon many of the veteran musicians with whom he has collaborated over the years, including former OK Jazz vocalist Wuta Mayi, to recreate a selection from Franco's dauntingly massive repertoire. Some of the songs chosen for inclusion are less well-known, less obvious choices, here dusted off, polished and held up to the light for our attention to reveal the gems they truly are.
Two decades have passed and Franco's absence is still felt deeply by many of his compatriots, while his influence continues to resonate around the world. It is tempting to wonder what music 'Le Grand Ma&;icirctre' would be making if he had survived to the present day. Would the history of Congolese pop music have taken a different direction? We will never know, of course, but I suspect the Great Master would be very pleased with this homage to his rich legacy.
Born in Kinshasa in 1950, Mingiedi 'Syran' Mbenza grew up hearing Franco's music and taught himself to play guitar in the same style. After learning with African Jazz's 'Docteur Nico' Nicholas Kasanda and polishing his skills with various local bands, Syran was lured to West Africa by his cousin, Sam Mangwana, to forge the short-lived but influential African Allstars (1976-77).
As Zaire struggled under the dysfunctional regime of Mobutu, recording opportunities became all but impossible and musicians began to migrate to Europe in the 1980s. Syran formed another all-star group in Paris in 1983, with newly expatriated OK Jazz singer Wuta Mayi, Les Kamales' tenor nightingale Nyboma Mwandido and former Afrisa ace rhythm guitarist Bopol Mansiamina. Christened as Quatre Etoiles (Four Stars), the quartet took the new style known as soukous and made it their own, to great international success.
After that, Kekele was born in 2000, formed on the inspiration of producer Ibrahima Sylla to mine, and remake, the rumba and acoustic instrumentation of the belle époque of Congolese music's formative years. The group included Wuta, Nyboma, drummer Komba Bellow, Cameroonian saxophonist Jimmy Mvondo and, of course, Syran, the electric soukous guitar-slinger, who reinvented his sound on an acoustic guitar.
On this album Syran is performing once again with many of the veteran musicians with whom he has collaborated over the years.
With a mellow French horn of a voice, listening to Wuta Mayi is like snuggling into your favourite robe and bedroom slippers. Part of OK Jazz from 1974 to 1982, this supremely talented vocalist then relocated to Paris and joined Quatre Etoiles.
Originally from Bandundu, Elba Kuluma spent some time with Youlou Mabiala's Kamikaze in Kinshasa in the late 1980s, the reincarnated Bantous de la Capital/Bantous Monument in Brazzaville in the 1990s, and went on to join the remnants of OK Jazz under the flag of Bana OK. His husky, emotive voice is full of character.
Sax supremo Jimmy Mvondo singlehandedly stands in for the entire mighty OK Jazz brass section here, and acquits himself admirably. His fluid jazz-informed soloing was first heard in the mid-1980s, notably on Quatre Etoiles' first studio recording.
Many of the others called to duty here are also found among the Kekele line-up guitarist Fofo le Collegien trading off solo, rhythm and mi-solo with Syran, conguero Deba Sungu, and Viviane Arnoux contributing accordion on the Camille Feruzi song, while Quatre Etoiles rhythm guitarist Bopol Mansiamina sits in on the rumba medley. Kit drummer Komba Bellow Mafwala has also been a constant presence in both Quatre Etoiles and Kekele line-ups over many years.
Ballou Canta, who occasionally appeared with Quatre Etoiles, gives a vocal cameo on 'Liwa Ya Franco', accompanied by a soothing harmony from Ketsia, a female vocalist of French Antillean origin. Bassist Flavien Makabi, who was one of the longstanding OK Jazz bass players from 1976, adds authenticity.
01 Heritage Ya Luambo
Elba takes the lead vocal on Syran's original composition in honour of Franco. The refrain is 'baleli Franco' ('they cry for Franco'), tracing the many who still feel Franco's loss.
02 Beyou Motema
Taking the lead vocal on his own 1980 composition, Wuta Mayi sings a broken-hearted love song about jealousy. Syran absorbs Franco's guitar style, which is augmented by Jimmy's OK Jazz horn.
03 Liyanzi Ekoti Ngai Na Motema (Mouzi)
Elba gives a magnificent vocal performance on Ntesa Dalienst's song, which was a huge hit all over Africa but little known in the West. Condensing the original fourteen-minute epic, the ensemble still retains the song's enthusiasm and richness.
04 Mbanda Nasali Nini? (Madeleine)
Camille Feruzi's accordion masterpiece represents Franco's period of acoustic authenticity in the 1970s. Elegant in its simplicity, this is one of Syran's personal favourites, as he relishes the opportunity to add the emotional signature Franco-style acoustic guitar solo.
This elaborate song about love and deception dates to 1977-78, with Jimmy Mvondo nicely referencing the original mocking, conversational sax tones.
06 Infidelité Mado
Syran and Wuta Mayi have been performing this live for a good thirty years with both Quatre Etoiles and Kekele. This is their first studio recording of this luscious rumba story of love in vain, originally recorded by OK Jazz in 1971, and a showcase for a thrilling Francoesque sebene.
Wuta and Elba stand in for OK Jazz's full-bodied vocal frontline, originally sung by Josky Kiambukuta, Ndombe Pepe, Wuta and Youlou Mabiala. Fofo takes the lead on guitar and Jimmy singlehandedly reproduces the full horn section with soprano, alto and tenor saxophones.
08 Rumba Odemba
A relaxed and grooving old-style rumba medley incorporating choice classics from Franco's vast repertoire.
09 Liwa Ya Franco
Ballou Kanta's evocative rendition of 'Liwa Ya Franco' ('The Death of Franco') wrings the pathos out of the song. Franco originally wrote this song, 'Liwa Ya Wech', in tribute to a childhood friend who passed away, and it was popularized internationally in the 1960s as 'Liwa Wechi' by Miriam Makeba. A stately melody is fitted out with lyrics in an epitaph to Franco's passing.
10 Cherie Bondowé
Mayaula Mayoni's extravagant and gorgeous rumba, lovingly sung by Wuta.
11 Zozo Visi
Here, Wuta solos on his own composition for OK Jazz from 1981.
12 Tour A Tour
Syran's composition was written in the spirit of OK Jazz. The world goes round and round, and what goes around comes around. Franco's music has come around again into Syran's capable hands.
CC Smith, Editor & Publisher, The Beat magazine