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. Franco was Africa's greatest, if not the sole, international pan-African music star. By the time of his death in 1989 his 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 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.
This album brings together a host of Congolese talent to celebrate such a gargantuan musical legacy. 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 and previous collaborators to recreate a selection from Franco's dauntingly massive repertoire. Some songs are less well-known, here dusted off, polished and held up to the light for our attention to reveal the gems they truly are.
Born 1950 in Kinshasa, 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, 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 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.
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 Syran: the electric soukous guitar-slinger, who reinvented his sound on an acoustic guitar.
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.
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.