Franco Luambo Makiadi, better known as Franco, was the most influential musician in the history of African pop music. But he doesn't have a single American-label record in print. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, the magnificent 2096-page tome edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., includes profiles of King Sunny Ade, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Thomas Mapfumo, Miriam Makeba, and other breakthrough African musicians, yet not a word on Franco, the biggest phenomenon of them all.
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Along with fellow band leaders Grand Kalle and Dr. Nico, Franco invented the Congolese rumba sound that melded the popular Latin-American cha-cha-cha, bolero, and rumbas of the Fifties with local ethnic rhythms. Franco's innovation of supplanting the primacy of the colonial-style brass bands with guitar-led ensembles made him the continent's first superstar, complete with endorsement contracts from clothing lines and car manufacturers. His career lasted more than 30 years and spawned the hyperactive guitar-led genre called soukous that dominated African pop until the Nineties. Yet outside a cadre of die-hard African pop aficionados, his contributions are largely ignored in the West.
The London-based Stern's Africa label is preparing a long-overdue four-disc Franco box set for release near the end of this year. In the meantime Stern's American office is distributing a tasty 1999 RetroAfric-label retrospective of the guitar giant's first recordings, Originalité. Newly processed via the increasingly effective CEDAR digital noise reduction system, these songs from 1956-57 have nice mid-fi sonics with mellower midrange and less shrillness to the highs than other collections I've heard from the same time period. A case in point is Roots of OK Jazz (Crammed Disc). Although its Franco tracks from 1955-56 for the Loningisa label house band, Bana Na Loningisa, just predate those on Originalité, the compressed audio makes them seem a decade older.
Packed with three-minute cuts tailored for the limitations of 78-rpm records, Originalité hints at the powerhouse extended soukous workouts to come. It shows the band first tinkering with the transformation of Cuban music to a local and later pan-African sound. Spanish melodies, Latin horns, claves, bolero rhythms, and New World rumbas predominate, though "Mado Ya Sango" illustrates a short guitar break that presages the Franco approach of laying on variations of repeating figures until delirium results -- a technique later perfected in the Eighties by Zairean stars such as Loketo and Kanda Bongo Man. Although Franco's career really hit its stride in the Sixties, his reputation was so well established by the time he and his bandmates first hit vinyl as OK Jazz that the boastful theme song that kicks off this disc, "On Entre OK, On Sort KO" ("You enter okay, you leave KO-ed"), was already a gimme.
As the cliché goes, if Franco had only recorded the classics on this disc and done nothing else, his reputation would stand. With its dashing tropical élan and clever mix of urgency and laid-back vibes, the material is that good. The impact of Franco's invention of an African electric guitar sound can't be underestimated, especially when compared to the efforts of rock and roll contemporaries in America and Britain, nor can the charm of the songs on Originalité, as the musicians blaze their way through this brand-new form. Horn parts still punctuate many of the compositions, and two cuts, "Pasi Ya Boloko" and "Merengue," spin around acoustic guitars. But the amplified passages first heard here point toward the beautiful noise that would soon rock an entire continent. And many of them rock real hard.