For nearly four decades, Congolese music was dominated by one man and one band — the burly guitar wizard Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, popularly known as Franco, and TP OK Jazz. By the time he died in a Belgian hospital in October 1989, Franco, also known as Grand Maitre, had recorded more than 600 songs and released more than 200 albums.
But TP (Tout Puissant) OK Jazz was more than just a band. It was an institution, a family, and a music school of sorts. It shaped the careers of many musicians, who went on to become great singers and composers.
The death of former TP OK Jazz singer Pepe Ndombe Opetum last week is a turning point on the Lingala music scene, particularly for the TP OK Jazz fraternity.
Ndombe was among the last of the TP OK Jazz veterans living in Kinshasa. Others include Lutumba Simaro, who was the long-serving vice-president of TP OK Jazz (later Bana OK), vocalists Josky Kiambukuta, and Michel Boyibanda (now based in Congo-Brazzaville). Simaro had wished to keep the band intact. But this was not to be as Franco’s family demanded more say in the band, forcing Simaro and his colleagues to abandon ship and form their own band, Bana OK.
Josky, who had temporarily returned to Kinshasa, is now back in France.
When a lanky Franco appeared on the music scene in Kinshasa in 1950 (at the age of 12), there were already some established names in Congolese music such as Joseph Kabaselleh (The Grand Kalle Jeff) and Wendo Kolossy. The band of the time was African Jazz with Kalle, who was eight years older than Franco.
Pioneer Congolese musicians agree that Kalle introduced the tam tam and electric guitars to Congolese music. His African Jazz band featured the solo guitar wizard “Dr” Nico Kasanda, who later teamed up with Tabu Ley in African Fiesta. Kasanda based his guitar techniques on his native Baluba xylophone tunes. But Franco mesmerised the big stars with his guitar wizardry and before long, he was upstaging the big names in Kinshasa.
As a guitarist, Franco was inspired by Paul Ebongo Dewayon, the elder brother of Johnny Bokelo Isenge of the Conga International fame. Incidentally, Franco made his debut with Dewayon’s Watam Band.
By the end of 1953, Franco had recorded his first memorable song Bolingo na Ngai na Beatrice (My love for Beatrice). He also recorded what are considered to be juvenile love songs like Lilima and Marie Catho.
In 1956, he formed the TP OK Jazz band, originally simply known as OK Jazz.
In the early days of his career, Franco was content to play the guitar. After all, he had great vocalists such as Vicky Longomba, the father of techno sokous star Awilo Longomba, and, of course, Lovi Longomba, who many Kenyans will remember for his stint with the Nairobi-based Congolese band Super Mazembe. Vicky Longomba was 10 years older than Franco. There were other great musicians in the first generation of TP OK Jazz such as Rossignol, De La Lune, Zimbabwean-born saxophone player Isaac Musekiwa, Edo Lutula, and Armando Brazzos.
When some of the vocalists left the band, Franco tried out his vocals and never looked back. He would recruit Mulumba Joseph (Mujos), Kiamuangana Mateta “Verckys”, Kwammy Munsi Dele Pedro, and singer Lola Checain in the early 1960s.
Franco brought a new sound to Congolese music, which had been heavily influenced by Cuban cha-cha. His had a huge African flavour, with its roots in his Bas-Congo home area. The guitar lines were sharp, the drums throbbed. Franco had a love affair with the solo or lead guitar.
Franco’s brother Bavon Marie-Marie, who died in a car accident in Kinshasa in 1970, is remembered for his brief but illustrious stint with the Negro Success Band. Bavon’s most memorable song was Maseke ya Meme.
The list of people who passed through Franco’s hands reads like the who-is-who in Congolese music. There was Lutumba Simaro Massiya, popularly known as “Le Poete” because of his impeccable song writing skills. Many will remember him for his virtuoso box guitar performance on the album Testament ya Bowule in the late 1980s. Simaro also penned other popular compositions like Mabele, Mbongo, and Mandola Lobanzo (featuring singer Djo Mpoyi).
Franco liked to discover talent and would go to great lengths to find it. The sweet vocals on some of TP OK’s biggest songs were by Prince Youlou Mabiala. Franco fished him from the neighbouring Congo Brazzaville. Mabiala, who later married Franco’s daughter, now lives in Paris, where he is recuperating from a mild stroke.
Most fans of TP OK Jazz will remember his popular duet with Franco on the song Infidélité Mado (composed by Celi Bitchou). Mabiala is also best remembered for his early 1970s song Cherie Kamikaze, while still with TP OK Jazz.
TP OK Jazz meant everything to Wambui Karanja, an ardent Nairobi rumba fan.
“By the time I was old enough to go to clubs and appreciate music, Franco was long dead. Yet for me, his music is ageless, soothing, and entertaining.”
She listens to Azda and Boureau des Coeurs on a quiet afternoon at home and dances to Chandra and Bina Ngai na Respect in clubs in the evening.
“To some, the death of Franco might have been the end of a golden era of Africa rumba music, but for me it was the beginning of a lifetime affair with the music of the most versatile musician this continent will ever see”.
Veteran radio presenter Fred Obachi Machoka says that although TP OK Jazz is no more, the music remains evergreen. “Any lingala show on radio is incomplete without playing a TP OK Jazz song,” he says.
As for veteran promoter DS Njoroge, who was in the 1980s involved in bringing Franco and his TP OK Jazz group to Kenya, there will never be anyone like Franco.
“Of all the groups we brought to Kenya, it is TP OK Jazz’s music that remains unique and unrivalled,” he said. As Eliab K. Kiemo, also an ardent rumba fan, put it: “True to the word, when the Voice of Kenya (now KBC) announced Franco’s death in October 1989, the news hit us die-hard fans like a thunderstorm.”
Kiemo also hailed the remarkable duet by Tabu Ley and Franco in the song Lisanga ya Banganga.
Lynnette Andabwa from Mombasa feels that Lingala music would not have been so exciting without Franco and his group. “The beats were of medium tempo and vocals soothing to listen to even if you didn’t understand the lyrics,” she says.
In the 1980s, there was the immensely talented Madilu Bialu System. His cooperation with Franco yielded great songs like Mamou, Pesa Position, Non, and Makambo Ezali Minene.
But it was Mamou that moved most fans with lyrics depicting a lively conversation between a divorcee and a married woman who accuses the former of trying to break up her marriage. The song also includes a telephone conversion, where bassist Mpudi Decca mimicked a woman’s voice.
Madilu, who died in August 2007, had been pursuing a solo career.
Another former TP OK Jazz great, Mayaula Mayoni, who composed the hit song, Cherie Bondowe, died in May 2010. He had lived in Dar es Salaam for many years and doubled as a football player, turning out for one of the top clubs in Tanzania.
Pepe Ndombe Opetum composed popular songs with the band such as Voyage ya Bandundu and Anjela. Njoroge Kibe, a rumba fan of TP OK Jazz from Loitokitok, recalls with nostalgia how he would visit music stores in Nairobi in search of music by TP OK Jazz.
“This is the kind of music that will never die,” he says.
Interestingly, some of the best songs to come out of Congo were done by Franco in collaboration with his biggest music rival, Tabu Ley, popularly known as Le Seigneur Rochereau. Franco and Rochereau recorded the album Lisanga ya Banganga.
Their rivalry dates back to 1963 when Dr Nico Kasanda, who was playing with Kalle in African Jazz, left to form African Fiesta alongside his brother, Dechaud, and Tabu Ley. However, African Fiesta split, with Tabu Ley leading Fiesta National while Dr Nico led African Fiesta Sukisa.
As all this was happening, Franco was steadfast with his OK Jazz group. According to US-based former Afrisa International manager, Mekanisi Modero, the rivalry between Franco and Tabu Ley energised the Kinshasa music scene.
With Angolan maestro Sam Mangwana, Franco recorded Cooperation. Mangwana was actually born and grew up in Kinshasa and did the last recording by Franco titled Forever, a few months before his death in 1989. Mangwana, a solo recording artiste, has all along been attached to the TP OK Jazz fraternity.
Speaking recently to DN2 from the Angolan capital, Luanda, Mangwana said the spirit of Franco and OK Jazz will live forever.
“It hasn’t been easy having been to cope with the loss of many of my counterparts but I’m optimistic that the musical spirit will carry on.”
Also expressing similar sentiments was the Brussels-based former TP OK Jazz guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku, who leads the Belgium-based Odemba OK Jazz Stars (an offshoot of TP OK Jazz).
“Despite the challenges, we have been trying our best to cope with the hard times both in Europe and Africa,” he said.
Some of the former members of TP OK Jazz who are now with the Odemba band include singers Malage Lutala Lugendo, Lokombe N’Kalulu, Nana Akumu Wakudu, and Baniele Mbambo Vicki. Others in the horns section and also formerly with the group include Ngewanzola Kiambi Iblo, Mukulu Muindila Muki, and Bilolo Mutshipay. Notably Lugendo was with the TP OK Jazz band from 1985 to 1989 and was the lead vocalist in Simaro Massiya’s Testament ya Bowule.
For decades, Franco and Tabu Ley dominated the music scene in Congo. Franco had big songs in the 1960s such as Azda, which was a commercial. Tabu Ley also penned another advert song Savon Omo.
Franco also launched and nurtured the careers of several women like Jolie Detta, now a gospel musician. Detta, a young woman with Greek and Congolese parents, did the lead vocals in songs such as Massu and Layile in 1986 and made a debut tour to Kenya with TP Ok Jazz in 1986. She later became a born-again Christian and switched to gospel music. She is now married and is based in Luanda, Angola.
TP OK Jazz was a huge band, which like many Congolese groups of the time, was styled as an orchestra. At any one time, it had no less than 40 members. In his last years, Franco split the band into two. One was based in Kinshasa and another in Europe, specialising in recordings and concerts. While he travelled with the band to Europe, Simaro remained in Kinshasa.
Great instrumentalists who made their name through TP OK Jazz include guitarist Mosese Fan Fan, reputed to have been the only solo guitarist with an almost similar style to Franco’s. Then there was Mpudi Decca, Thierry Mantuika, Gege Mangaya, Gerry Dialunguna, Papa Noel Nedule, Jerry Malekani, and Flavien Makabi. In the horns section, TP OK Jazz fans will remember Empopo Loway, Kasongo Randot, Dele Pedro, and Sax Matalanza.
But it was in the vocals department that Franco assembled the best of the best. Among them were Ntesa Dalienst, (remembered for Bina Na Ngai Na Respect), Djo Mpoyi, Diatho Lukoko, Wuta Mayi, Aimé Kiwakana, Kiesse Diambu, Josky Kiambukuta, Djo Djo Ikomo, Carlito Lassa, and Lola Checain.
After Franco’s death, Simaro led the band for four years, but fell out with the family over finances and record label management. He later formed a new band. Keen to retain Franco’s legacy, he named it Bana OK, meaning the children of OK Jazz. The band is no longer active, with many of the aging stars having retired and living in Kinshasa. But many former TP OK Jazz members live in Europe, pursuing solo careers or in semi-retirement.
The days of big bands in Congo appear to have gone with Franco. He was the band master, composer, and guitarist considered by many as “extraordinary”.
Dar-based Congolese musician and radio presenter Tshimanga Assosa, formerly of Les Kamale and Fuka-Fuka, hailed the musical efforts of Franco and TP OK Jazz.
“During live shows, most groups playing African music will not fail to perform songs by Franco and his TP OK Jazz band,” he says.