The rise and fall of TP OK Jazz
Posted Tuesday, May 29 2012 at 18:00
- In his biography of Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, Graeme Ewens describes the founder of the defunct TP OK Jazz as ‘Congo Colossus’. At about 40 members, everything about the band was colossal… the hits, the popularity, and the controversies. With the death of one of its vocalists, Pepe Ndombe, last week, music writer AMOS NGAIRA takes a nostalgic trip to the band’s heyday
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.”