Today it is exactly 25 years ago that Franco passed away in Namur, Belgium. To commemorate this tragedy, and as a tribute to this giant of Congolese, African and global music, I would like to share with you some of the songs of his early career. Songs which earned him the appellation "Franco de mi amor".
These songs by the O.K. Jazz were recorded between August 28, 1957 and March 10, 1959; so at a time when Franco (born July 6, 1938) was 19 and 20 years old. All songs fall in that unfortunate category of 'inédits', i.e. songs which - as far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong!) - were never rereleased. They were originally recorded for the Loningisa label owned by the cousins Basile and Athanase Papadimitriou, and released both on the Loningisa label and on His Master's Voice. The full catalogue of the Loningisa label can be found here, and more detailled catalogues of the HMV releases of Loningisa recordings and of the O.K. Jazz songs on Loningisa can be found on Flemming Harrev's excellent Afrodisc.com.
As I have written before, it is a mystery to me why these songs have not been reissued, either on vinyl or in digital form. These recordings are in my opinion of the quality which should deserve them the protected status of the Unesco's World Heritage List or such.
I have to add that a number of songs of this era have been released, both on vinyl (African 360.1441 and 360.158, Discostock DS 7950) and on CD (Sonodisc 36502 and the first 10 songs on 36505, RetroAfric Retro 2XCD). But still a lot risk being forgotten in the dense mist of time.....
Let me stress that the quality of (the copies of) these records leaves a lot to be desired. Although this is not always a bad thing.
A good example of this is the song originally released as Lon 199: "Linga Ngai Tolinga Ye". Despite its obvious shortcomings I prefer this version to the remastered (?) version on Discostock DS 7950. The instruments, the vocals, they are much clearer in this version, far more defined. Vicky Longomba's heavenly velvet voice, backed by the subtly understated Edo Nganga, Franco adding touches, colour, filling in sentiment in the background, caressing Isaac Musekiwa's sax play (in one of his very first recordings with the O.K. Jazz!), Brazzos providing the stable base on rhythm guitar: what a sheer delight is this song! A boléro, but one that seduces the listener into movement, - if not dance.
The second song in this collection is the A-side of Lon 203: "Oboyi Ngai Likambo Te", composed by Celestin Kouka. The B-side, "Tika Na Bala Ye", can be found on Sonodisc 36505. A typical rumba, with Franco and Musekiwa side-by-side providing the base of the song, sung by Vicky and Kouka. I particularly like the decorations added by Musekiwa. Ordinary as these may sound now, they were completely new at the time. Musekiwa had come over from African Jazz just a few months before, so he and Franco were busy inventing a new style in these songs.
In the A-side of Lon 205, "Obebisi Chance Stephanie", the interplay between Franco and Musekiwa is very different. Instead of joining they are complimenting each other. Isaac plays the chorus2, with Franco doing the decorating. And in the refrains Isaac does the decorating, while Franco signals the breaks.
The B-side of Lon 205 is equally interesting. Both "Tokomi Na Bonne Année" and the A-side are composed by Vicky, but he does not sing the lead vocal on the B-side. Instead he modestly backs Edo. Franco is very active in the refrain and the first chorus is another combined effort with Isaac. But from halfway into the song Isaac takes over from Franco in the refrain, and he and Franco play an extended version of the chorus.
Lon 206 has two songs composed by Edo. The A-side, "Christine Yo Nde Boye", is particularly interesting as the bass player, De la Lune, plays an unusual role. Musekiwa only appears after two minutes, so Franco seems to chose De la Lune for some interaction. The B-side, "Bonne Année To Sepeli" starts off with Isaac colouring in the refrain, only to be joined by Franco for an extended chorus. Unfortunately the song is incomplete; it breaks off after 2'50.
The next two songs (Lon 217), both composed by Franco, are of a muffled sound quality, but it is still clear that there is quite a bit going on in the songs. "O.K. Jazz Bana Mike" has Franco really sweating, pushing the rhythm, with Dessoin on congas vaguely audible in the background. A lovely steamy song, of which I would love to have a better copy (hint..).
In the B-side "Ah! Mi Espana" too there is an important role for Dessoin. Vicky is dishing out the rubbish spanish with the usual unperturbed conviction and cool. It seems the country of Spain itself was not known to the members of the band, as they consistently pronounce it as "Espana" (instead of "España"). But who cares?
One of my favourite songs of this collection is Vicky's "Olongi Na Yo Mama" (Lon 221). Despite the poor quality of this copy it isn't hard to hear that Franco is dying a thousands deaths in the background. What pathos!
The killer in the chorus is Vicky's "Boyoki Mama" (1'13) followed by "Ah .. bolingo". This just is the icing on the cake for me. Vicky had a rare gift for adding these spoken comments at exactly the right moment, but this is one of the very best. In an inexplicable way it lifts the whole song to another level.
In the second refrain Franco is more subdued but certainly not more intense. In the following chorus he throws out all the emotion. What a gem!
The B-side, the rumba "Nayebi Bolingo", is (relatively) less exciting, with Musekiwa playing a very active part throughout the song.
The emotion is certainly present in "Ah! Pauvre De Moi" (Lon 227), composed by Edo, but is a different one than the extreme one of "Olongi Na Yo Mama". Here Franco is Franco de Mi Amor: more loving, almost seducing his audience. The vocal harmony between Edo and Vicky is simply heavenly. Another song which just cries out for a rerelease...
In this case the B-side, "Bokokana Se Pamba", is equally interesting, particularly because of the delightfully lightfooted rhythm, which all contribute to accentuate. Again De la Lune plays a crucial role on bass in keeping the song flowing.
The next two songs in this selection were composed by Brazzos. Along with Edo Nganga he is one of the few survivors3 of this golden era of the O.K. Jazz (and of Congolese music in general). "Cuando Yo Te Dico" (Lon 231) is in a lot of ways a typical Brazzos composition, with its pseudo-spanish lyrics and a rhythm which is a cross between a boléro and a cha-cha-cha. The interplay between Franco and Musekiwa in this song sounds very casual and easy. It is not clear what the role of Brazzos is in this song. Perhaps he is playing bass in this?
The B-side, "Boni Na Ngai?", is a rumba with a rather unusual rhythm. Dessoin's conga gives it an galopping pace, with Franco dancing on top. As on the A-side the quality of the 78rpm record is quite bad, but the music still shines through.
"Hey John, here's your heisty time for the calypso, fine" are the cryptic opening words of "Timing Hole", a composition by Rhodesian Isaac Musekiwa. Released as Lon 241 and recorded on December 3, 1958, the song is labelled as a calypso, but I personally don't hear the similarity with any other calypso, be it of African or of West Indian origin. The rhythm is pleasantly slow and stretched out, leaving plenty of space for Franco to fill in with his inimitable riffs. This song and its at times incomprehensible lyrics (in English) remind me of the songs Musekiwa composed with African Jazz ("Flowers of Luckyness" and "While She's Away"), and leave me with the same puzzled feeling. What are these songs about?
The A-side "Ondimi Sik'Oyo" is a straightforward rumba, with Isaac in a leading role.
Lon 244 features another composition by Vicky in a local version of spanish, - as the title "Eschucha Mia Demanda" already suggests. My guess is the song is intended to be about a man (Vicky) begging a woman (?) to listen to his plea and not let him suffer. And I guess a large part of the Leopoldville audience understood the gist of the song, if only on the basis of the few french words strategically thrown in. Harmonies again are superb, and Isaac is clearly in his element.
Unfortunately I don't have the B-side.
The next record, Lon 245, contained two more songs composed by Brazzos. The A-side is a rumba: "Naboyi Bilubu Ya Bandumba". A compact and powerful song with a strong contribution by Franco, including a very tight interplay with Isaac.
The B-side has a more relaxed, loose rhythm; a cha-cha-cha with boléro touches: "Naci Para Bailar". In this song the contribution of the composer seems more pronounced, assuming he plays rhythm guitar. The interplay of Musekiwa and Franco has reached a tightness where Franco is almost hidden behind Isaac's notes. The break or shift at 1'14 is a stroke of sheer genius of the composer. Wonderful song!
The next song is one of those very special compositions by Franco lui-même. The A-side of "Masumbuku" (see this post), "Yimbi" (Lon 246) is Franco's personal take on traditional music. These songs are usually very personal songs, sung by Franco himself. Franco is hyper and hyper-present from the start. In case there was still any doubt about Franco's vocal agility, this song is a great example of his talent in this field. He may not have the belcanto of Vicky, or of Kabasele, Kwamy or Rochereau, but he does have character and personality in his singing. And if that is not enough there is that hard-hitting guitar. The omission of this song in any collection of his work is almost criminal, if you ask me...
"Pantchika Es Mi Cancion" (Lon 249) offers a unique opportunity to distinguish its composer, Celestin Kouka. Unfortunately it is only for a few seconds, from 1'18 to 1'30 and from 2'41 to 2'55, - and then barely audible in this somewhat dull sounding copy. In the rest of the song he is hidden behind Vicky. Star of this track is Musekiwa. He is clearly getting the hang of things within the O.K. Jazz.
The B-side is much clearer sounding. "Na Tikali Ngai Moko", is a rumba in the style of "Naboyi Bilubu Ya Bandumba" and others. Notable is the subtle variation in the interplay between Franco and Musekiwa. Here Franco is clearly 'in the lead'.
The songs on Lon 251 were composed by a new talent: Jean Bokelo. I have no idea what Bokelo's contribution to "Elongi Nayo Ya Bomwana" involves. It seems unlikely he was playing guitar, with the likes of Franco and Brazzos around. The guitar certainly sounds like Franco, with the usual addition of bonus chords. Bokelo, who of course is better known as the leader of Conga Succès (and later Mbonda Africa), recorded two more compositions with Loningisa, "Likambo Soki Ya Koloka" and "Pobre Don Pierro" (Lon 299). He has also recorded for the Esengo label with his brother Dewayon's Conga Jazz, and I am not sure which came first.
The B-side, "Makanisi Makondisi Ngai", is a marvelous boléro, of the type patented by Franco. Again it is not clear what Bokelo's role is in this. Perhaps he is playing an extra guitar?
The final song in the compilation is "La Muyer" (Lon 253). Composed by Franco, it is a cha-cha-cha "espagnol" with a tight rhythm. The gimmick in this song is obviously the upward chord on the sax, executed with verve by Isaac.
This collection of 25 songs on the 25th anniversary of Franco's death proves that there is still a lot of work to do to preserve the legacy of this monument of African music. There are still countless songs to discover, and to uncover even...
The collection can also be downloaded here as one file.
2 I.e. the instrumental bits between the sung refrains.
3 At least as far as I know.