Africa has always been a literal gold mine, more so when it comes to its most celebrated, indigenous musicians. A name that has been firmly engraved into the hearts and memories of music lovers, young and old, is DRC’s Luambo Luanzo Makiadi Franco. Franco (also known as “the sorcerer” or “the god-father”) died in 1989 at the age of 51, exactly 28 years ago yesterday. His memory has since been preserved through his large fan base’s commemoration. As his legacy is looked back on, here are a few thing you might not have known about the King of Rhumba.
1. An activist as much as he was a musician
Throughout his nearly four decade career, Franco released more than 150 albums, composing close to 1,000 songs. His vast collection wasn’t only great to listen to, but also acted as a social commentary on Congo’s liberation, touching on the long Mobutu dictatorship. Franco also always made sure to revel in and celebrate the treasures of ordinary life. Ironically, his voice did not go unrecognised as he was also commended by the Mobutu government for his role in the state-sponsored authenticité movement. A movement celebrating traditional or nativist culture.
Mobutu declared Franco a grand maître, a title normally reserved for judges, professors and sorcerers, and presented him with a medal from Zaire’s Grand Order of the Leopard.
The King of Rhumba also has a few run-ins with the law, landing in jail on more than one occasion.
2. The conception of ‘OK Jazz’
When Franco was 18 years old, he helped form the sextet, OK Jazz, with the help of fellow musician, Jean Serge Essous. OK Jazz went ahead to record their debut album with the famous Franco composed title track, “On entre OK, on sort KO” (“You enter OK and leave knocked out”). This later became the group’s mantra. Franco took over sole leadership of OK Jazz after cofounders Essous and Vicky Longomba left the group to join rival Joseph Kabasselleh’s Africa Jazz.
3. A young star
Born François Luambo Makiadi in the Bas Zaire region, Franco’s father worked for the railroad while his mother sold bread at the local market. As a child, he honed in on his talent using a homemade instrument mimicking a guitar. He had the privilege of being tutored by the guitarist and bandleader Paul Ebengo Dewayon and could play guitar when he was seven. At age 12, he was a sensation, debuting professionally in Dewayan’s band.
4. A key component in the evolution of Soukous
Soukous is a style of African pop characterized by syncopated rhythms and contrasting guitar melodies. The sound developed in the Belgian, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Afro-Cuban music or as we know call it; rhumba. In the late 1940s, rhumba was what was in across many major African big cities. Franco immediately found work as a session guitarist, helping to develop the Afro-Cuban music into the “rumba Congolaise,” later known as soukous. The songs were sung in Lingala, an integrated language emerging from railroad construction workers from different tribal groups needing to communicate.
In 1953 Franco released his solo debut, entitled “Bolingo na ngai na Beatrice” (My love for Beatrice). Franco’s popularity cut across nationalities, class and tribes, remaining as popular in English speaking countries as it was in Francophone Africa.
5. Origin of the hit ‘Mario’
Zaire fell into economic decline in the 1980s, accelerated mostly by government corruption and spending. This affected the once thriving music scene of Zaire with cream of the crop artists relocating to Europe. Despite Franco following suit and moving his recording base from Kinshasa to Brussels, Belgium, he did forget his roots. He wrote longer songs, including elaborate narratives, one of which resulted in “Mario”. Released in in 1985, the song is about a young man who, despite his education, prefers to live off the earnings of his wealthy lover, a woman twice his age. The song became Franco’s biggest hit.
6. A national treasure’s memorial
Franco was one of the first African musicians to highlight the AIDS epidemic when it stormed the continent. His song “Attention na SIDA” was a 15-minute call for caution in sexual relationships and a plea for government intervention. Franco fell ill shortly after. Many speculated that the great musician was claimed by the same disease he had sung so passionately about.
Franco’s body was flown back to Zaire with the government declaring four days of national mourning. Crowds lined the streets of Kinshasa’s streets were full with crowds paying their last respects as the music legend’s hearse passed by; with the covered with the national flag draped over.
The state-run radio station, Voix du Zaire, played only his music as he was finally laid to rest on October 17.