Franco's Legend Lives On As Fans Mark 21st Anniversary

One of the anniversaries music fans in Africa often look forward to is that of Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, also known as Franco, who died in a Belgian hospital on October 12,1989.

For nearly three decades from the 1950s, Franco, a gifted guitarist, singer and composer, straddled the Congolese music scene like a colossus. This year’s celebrations, though, are not as hyped as last year’s 20th anniversary of his death.

His TP OK Jazz remains, perhaps, the most popular African band ever. Its membership averaged 50. It had such a depth of talent that Franco split it into two. One kept his forte in Kinshasa busy. The other group was based in Europe and remained active in France and Belgium.

Speaking to Review from Brussels, Belgium, singer Malage De Lugendo, who performed with TP OK Jazz from 1985 to 1989, said they had arranged a tribute show tomorrow in Brussels. Malage is a member of the Odemba OK All Stars led by former TPOK Jazz guitarist, Dizzy Mandjeku.

“Unlike last year when I travelled to Kinshasa to join my former colleagues, this year we will be in Brussels,” Malage said. Also speaking from Paris on Monday, veteran Nyboma Mwandido said no major concerts had been planned.

Many of the older musicians — Lutumba Simaro, Paris-based Josky Kiambukuta, Papa Noel, Makosso and others — remained with TPOK Jazz until the maestro’s death. Simaro, who had been the deputy president, wished OK Jazz to remain intact.

But Franco’s family demanded more control over the band, leading Simaro and his colleagues to abandon ship and form their own band, Bana OK.

Some of the names that rode to fame on Franco’s back include Jolie Detta, who sang the lead vocals in Massu and Layile. Franco also tapped Prince Youlou Mabiala from Congo Brazzaville. Youlou became one of the lead vocalists.

He now lives in Paris, and is recovering from a mild stroke. Another cross-border talent was Sam Mangwana. Though he was born in Kinshasa, Mangwana’s parents came from Angola. Mangwana now operates from Luanda, Angola.

Other names associated with Franco include Ndombe Opetum (Now in Kinshasa with Bana OK), Mosese Fan Fan (based in London), and, much later, Madilu Bialu System, who died in August 2007 and is best remembered for hits like Pesa Position, Non and Makambo Ezali.

Franco left a huge repertoire of music recorded from around 1955 to just before his death in 1989. There has been mention of nearly 200 albums and numerous records.

He also worked with his rivals. One of his biggest competitors, Paschal Rochereau, aka Tabu Ley, has been recognised as the other pillar of Congolese music. Tabu Ley has, for the last two years, been off stage after suffering a mild stroke in Kinshasa in 2008.

They competed for years, but finally crowned it with some of the best songs – Lisanga ya Banganga and Ngungi. With Mangwana, he recorded Co-operation.

Paul Ebongo (Dewayon), and elder brother to Johnny Bokelo Isunge was his main source of inspiration in his mastery of the guitar.

Also, during his early days, he closely associated with Joseph Kabasele (aka Grand Kalle), widely respected as the innovator of the popular “Rhumba Cha Cha Cha”.

Franco and Tabu Ley jointly recorded Kabasele in Memoriam that was in tribute to Grand Kalle, who died in 1983.

By Amos Ngaira, Daily Nation