Congolese guitarist Franco is still widely revered as Africa’s greatest musician and this Stern’s compilation is a great insight as to why. The opening track ‘Esengo ya mokili’ was made at the age of 15, after he had come to attention as a brilliant street busker who built his own guitar at the age of 7. The double CD takes us through 27 more years with 28 tracks in total and extensive sleeve notes. Some called him Godfather others the Sorcerer but we should just call him genius and revel in the brilliant music he created.
Congolese guitarist and band leader Franco ranks alongside Fela Kuti as one of the true giants of African music. Indeed it is arguable that the influence of the former on numerous countries music on the African continent has been greatest of all. Had it not been for Franco’s untimely death in October 1989 when the concept of world roots music was still in its infancy, he may have become as household a name as members of the Buena Vista’s. Thankfully he left as his legacy an extensive discography and it is from this that Sterns have selected a first volume of his early period weighing in at over two and half hours. Even this only scrapes the surface of Franco’s genius, such was the prolific nature of his recording career. The evolution of his music is evident in the contrasting styles between CDs 1 and 2. The first focuses on the early years from the mid-1950s when Franco was searching for an individual style to the end of the 1960s when Congolese music was about to undergo a major transformation with the policy of ‘authenticity’. From this formative period key tracks includ ‘On entre O.k., on sort k.o.’ which is typical of Franco’s 1950s sound. Noticeable during this period is the influence of Cuban music, but here transposed into a uniquely Congolese hybrid. Whereas Cuban instrumentation would include flute, violins and piano, Congolese rumba would favour electric guitars and reverb. The influence of Cuban music was pervasive and on ‘Tcha tcha tcha de mi amor’ is a delicious slice of Congolese Cubanissimo with a nod towards the great Grand Kalle.
Political and cultural changes were afoot from the mid-1960s onwards in the newly independent Congo. With the coming to power of Mabutu in 1965 a new policy of ‘authenticite’ was implemented and this impacted upon music as in other cultural domains. Secondly, an unprecedented period of growth and confidence was characterised by the commonplace slogan ‘My Mercedes is nicer than yours’. It was into this new era that Franco had found his own distinctive sound as exemplified on the 1970 song Marie Naboy’. By the early 1970s Franco, along with long-term rival Tabu Ley Rochereau, had significantly extended the length of songs with the use of the ‘sebene’ section, and indeed Franco cut some of his most enduring music from this period. Vocalist Sam Mangwana had joined the band and the combination of his sweet vocals and Franco’s guitar virtuoso along with brassy horns resulted in an irresistable and cohesive sound that listeners will be enthralled by. From the melodic lyricism of ‘Cherie Brandowe 2’ to the Afro-Cuban feel of ‘Mabele’ with its beautiful use of brass and especially saxophone, through to the endless guitar riffs on the lengthy ‘Liberte’ and the anthemic ‘Azda’, Franco was in his golden era and the compilation could easily have filled two CDs alone with additional gems from the era. A lavish forty-eight page booklet with incisive bi-lingual notes from musicologist Ken Braun and original photos of Franco and band members round off an indispensable guide to the early part of le grand maitre’s career.