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A Consumer Guide to FRANCO
by Joe Yanosik
This project began last May as a perfectly normal binge on an artist whose music I first fell for on the several Franco compilations I own, all recommended by Robert Christgau. My binge on guitarist-vocalist-bandleader Franco, the greatest African musician of all time, a self-taught genius who injected African rumba back into Cuban music and co-invented soukous, continued for weeks and at some point I felt compelled to create a spreadsheet of the tracks I owned from those comps, determine which albums those tracks originally appeared on using www.discogs.com, fill out the spreadsheet by adding the remaining tracks from those albums and see what I was missing. And that's when it hit me: even though I owned all five of the excellent Franco comps Christgau had reviewed (The Rough Guide to Franco, The Very Best of the Rhumba Giant of Zaire, African Classics, Francophonic, and Francophonic 2), eight CDs of music, 80 discrete recordings -- that was less than 10% of this titan's output!
It's a crime that the availability of his massive discography is so limited right now. The recent Francophonic comps helped enormously but knowing how much more exists, it's obvious that additional excavation is required. Realizing there was so much more that I needed to hear, I started listening to as much Franco as I could find using YouTube to track down those albums or songs not available to stream on Napster, which had quite a bit. Soon, the binge turned into a deep dive and at one point I thought of limiting my scope to Franco's recordings from the 1980s which was massive in itself. But I couldn't stop listening, so this guide covers his entire output starting with his earliest recordings in the mid-fifties.
Prior to the late 70s, Franco's albums were collections of singles, but albums-as-albums began in 1977, released only in Africa and Europe. Starting in 1989, French Sonodisc began reissuing all his music on CD in rough chronological order but, more often than not, chopped up original albums between two or more CDs. Due to the overall high quality of Franco's music, this mix-and-matching wasn't always a bad thing as it adds variety to the CDs and increases their playing length, although splitting classic albums like 1982's Cooperation between two CDs remains inexplicable and unforgivable. The few original albums that were issued in whole on Sonodisc CDs were typically 2-LP sets when first released.
Sonodisc CDs are scarce (and pricey) nowadays but lately Kenyan Tamasha and other companies have been releasing Franco music digitally, sometimes using the original LP album configurations, but more often using the longer Sonodisc CD configurations. For this reason, I chose to review Franco's discography using the Sonodisc CD configurations instead of the original LP album configurations. Streaming and downloading is definitely the easiest (and cheapest) way to hear Franco today.
Readers and collectors alike should be aware that several Sonodisc CDs have the same generic title and take note of the catalog numbers provided.
Here then is one African music fan's attempt at getting a handle on Franco and his T.P. O.K. Jazz orchestra's immense discography. As Ken Braun states in the notes to his superb Francophonic compilation -- what's amazing about Franco's music is not just the quantity of it, but how great so much of it is. So feel free to dive in and start anywhere. As the band's motto goes, in French: "On Entre OK On Sort KO!". Translation: "You come in OK, you leave K.O.'d!" I sure did.
Francophonic (Stern's Africa STCD3041-42) Compiled by Ken Braun, this 2-CD overview of Africa's greatest musician and bandleader features selected highlights from his staggering output from 1953 to 1980 with 28 songs ranging from the his earliest Afro-Latin recordings through his biggest hits ("AZDA", "Liberte") to the point where his ever-expanding TPOK Jazz band began to invent Congolese soukous on longer tracks. Without a doubt, the best place to start discovering and enjoying the music of Franco. A+
Francophonic 2 (Stern's Africa STCD3046-47) The second half of Ken Braun's essential Franco anthology features 13 tracks averaging 10 minutes apiece recorded in the 80s prior to his untimely death in 1989. Infinitely playable and danceable, these 13 tracks over 2 CDs are, even more than Francophonic, just a sampler of an amazing discography featuring over 1000 songs. These later recordings feature the sound of Franco's full orchestra at its best as gorgeous harmonies, Franco's silvery guitar runs and the rhythm and horn sections all join forces as the song progresses into a joyous climax known as the "sebene". Simply wonderful. A+
The Very Best of the Rhumba Giant of Zaire (Manteca MANTCD013) Prior to the release of Stern's Francophonic comps, this single CD was the best overview of the music of Franco available, containing 11 tracks ranging from 1956's theme song "On Entre OK On Sort KO" to 1987's 16-minute masterpiece "Attention Na Sida." More than half of these recordings were made available on Francophonic making this excellent comp slightly less essential nowadays. A
The Rough Guide to Franco (World Music Network RGNET1071 CD) Another career-spanning single disc overview of Africa's greatest musician, this CD only shares a handful of tracks with Francophonic so it's more useful (and easier to find) than the Manteca comp. It's an expertly-selected comp, unerringly picking lesser-known but essential tracks like 1981's "Tailleur" and 1966's "Finga Mama Munu." Too bad it only includes an 8:47 excerpt of "Attention Na Sida" rather than the full 16:39 version. A
African Classics (Sheer/Cantos SLCD 147) Another double-CD overview which, although it includes a wonderful sampling spanning his entire career, listens choppier than the Francophonic comps for the simple reason that it wasn't programmed chronologically. But it still features fabulous music ranging from early classics like "Aya La Mode," 70s hits like "Alimatou" and two of his best 80s tracks -- "Mamou" and the glorious 17-minute "Tres Impolis" which has one of the best sebenes in his discography. A-
Originalité: The First Recordings of This Legendary Band (RetroAfric RETRO2XCD) These historic 78s from 1956-57 constitute the earliest recordings of OK Jazz -- a group formed by studio musicians including the teenage guitar prodigy named Franco Luambo Makiadi -- so named by their sponsor who ran the OK Bar in Leopoldville (later Kinshasa). Just as Elvis' first recordings documented the birth of rock and roll, these are The Sun Sessions of Congolese guitar music. History aside, these 20 remastered tracks are wonderful music. The Caribbean influence is evident in standout songs like the band's definitive "On Entre OK On Sort KO" and the self-explanatory "Merengue," but many others sound a little same-y over an hour-long CD until you re-listen, at which points melodies emerge. Most of the tracks swing like crazy and all feature fantastic guitar playing by Franco, Latin horns and sweet vocal harmonies by singers Vicky Longomba and Edo Nganga. A quarter of these tracks (the best ones) can be found on Francophonic and The Rough Guide to Franco. Others can be found scattered about on great various-artists comps like Golden Afrique Vol. 2 (Network) and Afro Latin Via Kinshasa (Syllart). A-
Merveilles Du Passé Volume I (1957-1958-1959) (Sonodisc CD 36502) Taking off from where Originalité ends, Sonodisc begins its mammoth chronological reissue of Franco's catalog here, with this selection of early OK Jazz singles, featuring rumbas, calypsos, clavé, Cuban son and the Congo's first pop star on guitar; four of these charming records also appear on African Classics. ("Aya La Mode", "Babomi Mboka", "Tomesani Zonga Coco") **
Merveilles Du Passé Volume II (1958-1962) (Sonodisc CD 36505) As with all early OK Jazz, the best tracks are often the fastest, and usually feature the most guitar -- and tunes help too. ("Keba Na Songi Songi," "Sansi Fingomangoma") *
Merveilles Du Passé Volume III (1961-1962) (Sonodisc CD 36508) Wherein Leopoldville's favorite guitar- bass-saxophone-conga-maracas combo continues their transformation of Latin rhythms into Congolese dance music. ("Mpata Ezangi Mokengeli," "Kokende Mabe Boye," "Nani Akunsimdila Muana") ***
1960/1961/1962 (Sonodisc CD 36511) As OK Jazz expanded, Franco rechristened them TPOK Jazz (TP for Tout Puissant, meaning All Powerful), and you hear a tighter, more professional band on these records. Key new members included guitarist/songwriter Lutumba Simaro, the great saxophonist Verckys, and vocalists Kwamy and Mujos (who also wrote more than half of the 22 singles here, all good-to-great, most up-tempo). With hardly a clinker in the bunch, this fine CD features some of the toughest music in the TPOK Jazz catalogue. A few tracks speed through their two-and-half-minutes too fast but all have something to offer -- from the loopy sax solos in "Ele Wa Bolingo" to the guitar reverb in "Linda Linda" to the melody of Mujos' "Miguel Canta" and "Como Quere" to the openers "Ata Ndele Nde Oleli" and "Ya Luna Umbanzila", both written by original OK Jazz guitarist De La Lune, which really cook. B+
1970/1971/1972 (Sonodisc CD 36514) CHOICE CUTS: "Boma L'Heure," "Fifi Nazali Innocent," "Dje Melasi."
1967/1968 (Sonodisc CD 36518) CHOICE CUTS: "Nayebaki Likambo", "Cheri Loyvi."
1974/1975 (Sonodisc CD 36519) In addition to Franco's gorgeous "Alimatou" and the wonderful "Cheri Bondowe II", this excellent collection of mid-70s material also features three songs written by composer-guitarist Simaro (who would become Franco's right hand man and eventually VP of the band) including the groovy "Bisalela" and the rousing 2-part "Oko Regretter Ngai Mama" which unfortunately fades out and in between the 2 parts, as do two other tracks here. Guitars mesh together beautifully as do voices. Extraordinarily pretty and memorable. A-
1974/1975/1976 (Sonodisc CD 36520) CHOICE CUTS: "Nganda Ma Campagne", "Ou Est Le Serieux?"
1963/1965/1966 (Sonodisc CD 36521) Whether prodigal son Vicky Longomba sings fast rumbas or slow ballads, Franco's guitar is always the star, here sounding jazzier than ever -- jazzy as in Django Reinhardt, jazzy as in Wes-Montgomery-with-a-new-amp. ("Ngai Marie Nzoto Ebeba," "Ngala Na Bino Ekosila") *
1966/1968 (Sonodisc CD 36522) As the band continues to grow, listen up and you can hear sebenes busy bein' born, lately featuring King Curtis fan Verckys, most notably on a beer ad. ("Finga Mama Munu", "Lisaso Ya Kronembourg", "Numero Ya Kinshasa") ***
1968/1971 (Sonodisc CD 36529) Mose Fan Fan joins, James Brown visits, music gets funkier. ("Koun Koue! Edo Aboyi Ngai", "Marie Naboyi", "Infidelite Mado") ***
1966/1969 (Sonodisc CD 36533) CHOICE CUTS: "Kiwita Kumanani", "Boya Vicky Okende Poto."
1972/1973/1974 (Sonodisc CD 36538) As TPOK Jazz enters one of its many peak periods, the stone classics start coming, filling up half of this fine CD -- yet most can be found, in better company, on Francophonic. ("AZDA", "Kinsiona", "Luka Mobali Moko") ***
Bomba Bomba Mabe "Mbongo" 1977-1978-1979 (Sonodisc CD 36545) Supposedly a live album from his Afro-European tour, but the canned applause indicates otherwise. Several tracks work up a groove and feature great guitar but the uncharacteristically boring ballad "Oh Miguel" that starts things off (and lasts over 10 minutes) is a turn-off. ("Bomba Bomba Mabe", "Sala Lokola Luntadila") *
Souvenirs de Un Deux Trois (Sonodisc CD 36551) DUD
La Belle Epoque 1966/67 (Sonodisc CD 36553) CHOICE CUTS: "Mindondo Ya Koswana Na Mobali", "Tango Ngai Nazalaki Somele."
1966/1967 (Sonodisc CD 36554) While Franco picks or plucks his guitar, Vicky sings ballads, boleros and, of course, lots of rumba -- mostly mid-tempo. ("Lumbumba, Heros National", "Mbanda Akamwe", "Que Ne Numera El Son") **
1964/1965 (Sonodisc CD 36555) Good stuff, and it flows as well as any Afropop singles comp can reasonably be expected to, but the five best tracks (out of fourteen) were already cherry-picked for Stern's Francophonic and Syllart's African Pearls: Rumba on the River. ("Bolingo Ya Bougie", "Bazonzele Mama Ana", "Alphonso") ***
Souveniers de "Un Deux Trois" 1974/1978 Radio Trottoir (Sonodisc CD 36556) CHOICE CUTS: "Azwaka Te Azwi Lelo", "Radio Trottoire", "Naloba Loba Pamba Te."
Nakoma Mbanda Na Ngai (Sonodisc CD 36571) Six two-sided singles from 1975-1977, running between nine and fourteen minutes each -- most gentle and calming, yet the best featuring Franco's loud guitar. ("Nakoma Mbanda Na Mama Ya Mobali Ngai Pts. 1 & 2", "Desespoir Pts. 1 & 2") *
Georgette/Inoussa 1970/1973 Sonodisc CD 36572) CHOICE CUTS: "Bakoka Te Fiancee", "Georgette 2."
1971/1972 (Likambo Ya Ngana) (Sonodisc CD 36581) On the earliest tracks here that don't have sebenes, tunes had to suffice - and often did, sometimes with accordion. ("Likambo Ya Ngana", "Mbanda Nasali Nini?", "Siluwangi Wapi Accordeon?") **
Marceline (Sonodisc CD 36586) CHOICE CUTS: "Marceline", "Laissez-Moi Voir Franco."
Cesar Aboya Yo/Tonton 1964/65 (Sonodisc CD 36588) CHOICE CUTS: "Luvumbu Ndoki", "Josephine Naboyi Ye."
Monzo 77/79 (Sonodisc CD 36598) All groove, all the time -- even during the reggae number. ("Mobali Aboyi Na Ye Kaka", "Yo Na Mahenge Ngai Na Kabalo", "Leke Na Ngai Abalukeli Ngai") ***
Mino Ya Luambo Diamant (Sonodisc CD 36603) DUD
20eme Anniversaire Vol. 1 (Sonodisc CD 50382) This was originally a 2-LP set recorded and released in 1976 celebrating OK (later TPOK) Jazz's first 20 years. Reissued by Sonodisc on two separate CDs, this superior first volume features classics like the catchy "Liberte", the sweet "Kamikaze" and the gorgeous "Matata Ya Muasi Na Mobali Ekoki Kosila Te", all of which groove on for at least five or six minutes before reaching their dramatic climaxes, which then amaze for another two or three. A-
20eme Anniversaire Vol. 2 (Sonodisc CD 50383) A favorite of Francophonic compiler Ken Braun, Vol. 2's songs simply aren't as memorable as those on Vol. 1, even if they do often groove harder, and the substandard horn charts aren't always the reason. ("Seli-Ja", "Baninga Tokola Balingaka Ngai Te") ***
Franco et le TPOK Jazz (Sonodisc CD 8461) African fans had to buy two separate LPs (both titled Mario) in 1985 to hear the entire two-part epic but this CD includes both "Mario" (part one, lasting 14:20, also available on The Rough Guide to Franco) and "Mario (Suite)" (part two, lasting 13:36, also available on Francophonic 2) back to back. Of course, the story song means less to us non-Lingala speaking fans so we need to be content to immerse for 28 minutes in the glorious sound of TPOK Jazz at its finest and the featured lead vocals of Madilu "System", the band's best singer and biggest star of the 80s, who duets with Franco on these undeniable classics. After which follows 1986's lovely, three-song La Vie Des Hommes LP in its entirety -- an album treasured by Ken Braun who regretted having to omit the 20-minute title track from Francophonic 2 due to its length. Franco and System at their most hypnotic. A-
Franco et le TPOK Jazz (Sonodisc CD 8462) This useful CD collects the title tracks of three good 1988 albums Franco recorded in Europe which featured female singers Nana and Baniel and Belgian producer- keyboardist Vincent Kenis, who gave this music a more modern sound. Sounds a little lightweight at first, but from the tough guitar and syndrums on "Response de Mario"' to the women's angelic vocals on "Cherche Une Maison A Louer Pour Moi Cheri" to the beautiful Madilu/Franco duet "Sadou" to the saxophone refrain on "Les On Dit," it adds up to another wonderfully varied Franco CD. And it opens with a 5-minute techno-rave version of Mario titled "Mario (Non Stop)" (a.k.a. "Mario III") to get things started right. A-
Le Grand Maitre Franco (Sonodisc CD 8473) Franco's fine 1982 Sam Mangwana collaboration Cooperation gets all the huzzahs but this 1986 album featuring his right hand man Simaro is the true gem. One of the rare Sonodisc CDs that comprises an original vinyl release in full, this straight reissue of their 1986 LP Special 30 Ans Par Le Poete Simaro et le Grand Maitre Franco features four 10-plus minute tracks, all composed by Simaro, that just don't quit. Musically, the band is at one of their many peaks with the intertwined guitars of Gerry Dialungana, Dizzy Mandjeku and Simaro spinning repetitive melody lines while Flavien Makabi plays the hell out of his bass - especially on the lead track "Testament Ya Boyule." "Vaccination" features the fabulous brass section, "Tala Merci Bapesaka Na Mbau" has an absolutely wild sebene, and the closer "Aminata Na Zangi Visa" is just plain gorgeous. Great singing by Madilu System and new kids on the block Malage de Lugendo and Kiesse Diambu throughout. A
Le Grand Maitre Franco (Sonodisc CD 8474) This nicely sequenced collection of four tracks lasting 8:51, 11:12, 12:58 and 12:42 starts off with "C'est Dur La Vie D'une Femme Celibitaire", the best track from the 1988 Les On Dit LP featuring female singers Nana and Baniel and one of the most joyous entries in the entire Franco catalog. The girls sing an endearing melody over a disco beat while the synthesized brass moves things along until the cheesy keyboards and Franco's ethereal guitar chime in on this absolute charmer. "Minzata", a Josky tune from the 1988 Kita-Mata-Bloque LP (and a highlight of Music Club's Lightning Over the River soukous comp) follows with a sebene that starts catchy and then kicks it up a couple notches. Next up, Djo Mpoy sings his composition "Massikini" from the 1986 A Nairobi LP featuring sweet background vocals and smooth sax accompaniment. The finale is the classic title track from Kita-Mata-Bloque, Josky's biggest hit, which features another wonderful sebene with incredibly intricate guitar work you'd appreciate more if you weren't jumping up and down. But you will be. A
Le Grand Maitre Franco (Sonodisc CD 8475) This above-average well-paced five-track CD of 1987-88 music starts off slow, picks up the pace midway through, and then relaxes again towards the end. Nana and Baniel get the ball rolling with the sweet bouncy pop of "J'ai Peur" from the Cherche Une Maison A Louer Pour Moi Cheri LP. Both sides of the excellent "Anjela"/"Tawaba" maxi-single follow with their exhilarating sebenes and fine horn work. Closing out the package are two top-tier tracks from the Mamie Zou LP featuring lead vocals by tenor Ntesa Dalienst - the wonderful ballad "Nalobi Na Ngai Rien" with its shimmering guitar solo and the hooky "Dodo", which you'll be humming for some time. A-
Le Grand Maitre Franco (Sonodisc CD 8476) With six tracks pulled from five separate albums released 1986-1988, this slapdash Sonodisc moves along more haphazardly than can be supported, although individual tracks stand out. ("Je Vis Avec le P.D.G.," "Osilsi Ngai Mayele") **
Live in Europe (Sonodisc CD 8477) CHOICE CUTS: "Boya Ngai," "Testament Ya Bowule."
Franco et le TPOK Jazz (Sonodisc CD 8482). This 8-track selection from multiple 1986-1988 albums seems to have been constructed by Sonodisc as a best-of since all 8 tracks had already appeared on earlier Sonodisc CDs. Included are "Eperduement", "Flora Une Femme Difficile" and "La Bralima Et Sa Brasserie De L'An 2000" from CD 8476, "Mario (Non Stop)" and "Les On Dit" from CD 8462, "Tala Merci Pabesaka Na Mbua" from CD 8473, "C'est Dur La Vie D'une Femme Celibataire" from CD 8474, and "Nalobi Na Ngai Rien" from CD 8475. Wonderful music for the most part, but almost all of the above-named CDs are better constructed and contain even more wonderful music that you wouldn't want to pass by, making this the one to skip. Recommended to Afro-pop fans on a budget nevertheless. B+
1980/1981 (Sonodisc CD 8489) Twofer of 1980's A Bruxelles and 1981's Le Quart de Siecle Vol. 5: Coupe du Monde, its prizes two tuneful grooves and the wonderful 10-minute acoustic-guitar-with-synthesizer curiousity "Nalingaka Yo Yo Te" which Ken Braun thankfully included on Francophonic. ("Nalingaka Yo Yo Te", "Pamelo", "Fabrice") ***
1980/1981 (Sonodisc CD 8490). Title dates notwithstanding, this CD contains most of the relatively lightweight Chez Safari Club de Bruxelles (1984!), one from 1983's great Franco Presente Josky, two good ones from 1981's Le Quart de Siecle Vol. 1: Respect and the funky Fela-like "Princess Kikou" from 1981's Se Dischainement -- but the 2 best tracks are on Francophonic 2 and The Rough Guide to Congo Gold (a must-own soukous comp), and you can live without the others. ("Princesse Kikou", "Mujinga") *
L'Evenement! A Paris (Genidia GENCD 1003) This classic album shared by Franco and his great rival singer-bandleader from Zaire, Tabu Ley Rochereau, was originally released on vinyl in 1983 in France and a year later by Shanachie in the USA as Omona Wapi with the same four tracks, three of which were written by Rochereau, in a different order. (Both Shanachie and Genedia released the album in CD format in 1991). Using members of both their bands plus Parisian studio pros, the two titans of Congolese music created a true masterpiece of compelling rhythm and unforgettable melody. Their duet singing on this album, especially on "Kabasele in Memoriam", a tribute to their early mentor Le Grand Kalle who had just passed away, is some of the most gorgeous vocalizing you'll ever hear. Another track "Lisanga Ya Ba Nganga" translates to "unity of music wizards". You'll believe it. A+
3eme Anniversaire de la Mort du Grand Maitre Yorgho (Sonodisc CDS 6851) Easily the best Sonodisc mix-and-match of vintage early-1980s Franco music, this opens with one of his greatest recordings, the 17-minute title track to 1984's Tres Impoli and then, miraculously, follows with 5 more just as great. Simaro's composition "Kadima" from 1980's A Paris features a hooky horn chart and an impassioned vocal by Djo Mpoyi. The slow-burning "Non," a duet by Madilu System and Franco gets more beautiful as each one of its 13 minutes goes by and sounds like it fell off Omona Wapi, but it's actually from 1983's Chez Fabrice A Bruxelles, as is "Freins a Main" which features a gorgeous extended sebene. Two gems from 1980's 24 Ans d'Age double-LP, the sweet "Ayant Droit" and scintillating "Heritier," close out the package. Flawless beginning to end, this marvelous CD belongs at the top of any must-hear list. A+
En Colere (Sonodisc CDS 6852) This essential CD reissues in full the 1980 "comeback" album Vraiment En Colere Vol. 1 (translation: "Really Angry"), the first album Franco made after moving his operations to Europe (following a short jail sentence in Zaire for obscene lyrics) to take advantage of superior recording facilities, expand his audience and conquer America. The album, released in the USA by Makossa Records under the title On Entre OK On Sort KO Vol. 1, leads off strong with the magnificent "Takoma Ba Camarade Pamba" and its unforgettable melody and glorious sebene. The band sustains a classic groove on the steady driving "Arzoni", "Tokabola Sentiment" rocks out when it's good and ready, and the tightly wound "Loboka" brings the original album to a close as it gently unwinds. The two add-ons include a gem from A L'Ancienne Belgique and the lead track from the follow-up Vraiment En Colere Vol. 2 called "Peuch del Sol," which Franco wrote in tribute to his favorite Brussels seafood restaurant. A
Mamou (Tu Vois?) 1984/1985/1986 (Sonodisc CDS 6853) Combining one-and-a-half prime 1984 albums (Tres Impoli less its side-long title track plus all of Franco Presente Josky), this CD of six 10-minute tracks works where other Sonodisc shuffles don't simply because of the way it flows. The first two gems (from Tres Impoli) start off mid-tempo, lyrical and lovely: the gorgeous and mesmerizing "Mamou," the first big hit featuring the husky-voiced Madilu System, followed by the ballad "Temps Mort" featuring beautiful guitar work by Franco and Simaro. Only then, the four Josky tracks, all written and sung by Josky, pick up the pace with successive tracks getting progressively faster and more exciting. Great singing abounds on this showcase for the veteran lead vocalist and the band really rocks a groove. A-
1982/1985 (Sonodisc CDS 6854). We may never know Sonodisc's logic (if any) on how they decided to construct their CDs. (Why slap 3 different album sides together when a complete twofer would fit?). Their nonexistent liner notes sure won't tell us. Prime example is this CD which starts off with side two of the classic Sam Mangwana collab Cooperation ("Faute Ya Commercant" and "Zala Sportif"), continues with the gemlike side one of Se Dechainement ("Nostalgie," "Princess Kikou," both also available on Francophonic 2) and concludes with side two of Le FC 105 de Libraville ("Bourreau des Coeurs," "Aimer Sans Amour"). Nevertheless, the music is consistently high-grade from the charming sax on the stripped-down funk-lite "Faute Ya Commercant" to "Zala Sportif"'s glorious guitar/horn riff, and from the lovely melody of "Nostalgie" to "Aimer Sans Amour"'s non-stop groove. So just get it, will ya? A-
1986-1987-1988 (Sonodisc CDS 6855) CHOICE CUTS: "Sept Ans de Marriage," "Mario III," "Massu."
Attention Na Sida (Sonodisc CDS 6856) One of Franco's final masterpieces was this album's title track (translation: "Beware of AIDS") released in 1987. Over an infectious riff of trebly guitar, synthesizer and rolling bass, Le Grand Maitre preaches in French and Lingalese on the dangers of the disease for over 16 minutes -- warning the public to practice safe sex, pleading for doctors to find a cause, admonishing advanced countries for blaming AIDS on Africa instead of giving help. Likely already aware he had contracted it himself, his message, underscored by his strong, emotive vocal performance and belied by the joyous musical accompaniment, seems even more powerful and courageous since his AIDS-related death two years later. Without a doubt, the song is an important work of art by this major 20th-century musician. Unfortunately, the two other tracks on the original album, which was recorded in Brussels without TPOK Jazz, are mediocre at best. This 1994 Sonodisc CD adds on two excellent tracks from the L'Ancienne Belgique LP recorded in 1984 with TPOK Jazz -- Madilu's "Pesa Position Na Yo" (available on Francophonic 2) and guitarist Gerry Dialungana's groovy "Mukungu" -- which seem out of place here. B
Lettre A Monsieur Le Directeur General (Sonodisc CDS 6857) How does this other 1983 Rochereau collaboration (originally released as a 2-LP set called Choc Choc 1983 De Bruxelles A Paris) compare to the miraculous Omona Wapi (a.k.a. L'Evenement A Paris) recorded a few months later? Well, let's see. Same band, check. Same studio, check. Same beat, check again. Same singing, mmm . . . not quite. ("Suite Lettre No. 1," "Suite Lettre No. 3") ***
Makambo Ezali Bourreau 1982/1984/1985 (Sonodisc CDS 6858) Combining side one of 1984's pretty good Chez Rhythmes et Musique A Paris with most of 1982's pretty great Ntesa Dalienst showcase Se Dechainent, the music coheres well enough but the standouts are better heard on Francophonic 2. ("Kimpa Kisanga Meni," "Nostalgie") **
1980/1981 (CDS 6859) A five-track selection from the renowned four-volume series of Le Quart de Siecle LPs, released in 1981 to celebrate TPOK Jazz's 25th anniversary, these 10-minute-plus tracks feature a strong emphasis on the Congolese rumba rhythm and showcase wonderful guitar interplay, but often the melodies don't stick and staying for the sebene doesn't always pay off. ("Tailleur," "Ambozi Ya Pambu") **
1980/1982 (CDS 6860). Think of this one as a matched set with 1982/1985 (CDS 6854) because it includes the other half (side one) of Cooperation (the title track featuring Franco's stellar guitar solo plus "Loboko Na Litima", both with gorgeous Mangwana vocals). The other three tracks come from 1981's Le Quart de Siecle series: "Belle Mere" (with its loping bass and joyous saxophone) and "Tutti" (with its extended sebene) from Vol. 3: Tailleur and "Sandoka" (with its great vocal harmony of Josky and Dalienst) from Vol. 4: Mandola. The two best tracks on the CD, "Cooperation" and "Sandoka", both appear on Francophonic 2 and comprise half the running time of this CD so it's your decision whether to snag this or wait for Cooperation to be reissued in whole. I wouldn't wait. A-
En Colere Volume 1 1979-1980 (Sonodisc CDS 6861) Three unexceptional tracks from Vraiment En Colere Vol. 2 followed by three hit-or-misses from 24 Ans d'Age, a period represented to better effect on En Colere a.k.a. Sonodisc CDS 6852. ("Likambo Ya Moto", "Nabali Misere") **
En Colere Volume 2 1979-1980 (Sonodisc CDS 6862) On three loose, not sloppy tracks from A Paris and two sui generis tracks from 24 Ans d'Age, the band sounds like all they care about is getting to the sebene, and so will you. ("Locataire," "Proprietaire") ***
Tres Fache (Sonodisc CDS 6863) Originally a 2-LP set from 1982 titled On Entre OK On Sort KO Vol. 5 & 6 in the USA and Disque d'Or et Maracas d'Or 1982 everywhere else, Sonodisc wisely chose to fill up this CD with the entire album. Comprising eight lyric-heavy tracks, most in the 10 minute range, it's a song album. Specifically, love songs. But at the same time, it's a groove album. From the shimmering guitar running through Josky's "Soeto" to Franco's tender vocal on his breakup song "Farceur" to the love-at- first-sight melody of "Coupe de Foudre" ultimately crushed by polyphonic horns to the ensemble playing on guitarist Papa Noel's uptempo "Tangawusi", it's a wonderful showcase for the singers of TPOK Jazz which was at a peak vocally with Josky, Ntesa Dalienst and newcomer Madilu "System" all present. The opener "Tres Fache" is the bomb, featuring one of Franco's best vocal performances and a super-tight groove from the band who sound ready to morph into the JB's at a moment's notice. For 14 minutes, Franco rails against a cheating girlfriend as the chorus sings 'you lied to me, baby' (in Lingala) over a propulsive, stripped-down rhythm. When the horns and drums explode at the very end, it's cathartic. Title translation: Very Angry. A
A Paris 1983 Missile (Sonodisc CDS 6864) Another Sonodisc CD which reissues an original album in full, albeit with the tracks in different running order, this was a double LP from 1983 called Tout Feu Tout Flamme, recorded during the same 3-month period which produced L'Evenement and Choc Choc Choc 1983 by an all-star band featuring key members of TPOK Jazz and Rochereau's Afrisa International along with select session pros including famed guitarist Michelino, who here teaches Franco the joys of studio trickery. The opener "Partagez" is pure Philip Glass with its buzzing guitar riff which repeats for 13 minutes while Franco and the choir exort and chant over bass and drum machine. The remaining tracks have Franco and Michelino intertwining electric and nylon string guitars creating one exquisite sebene after another. Franco's guitar launches "Missile" into another realm as Josky's multi-tracked vocal soars alongside. With its modern sound and 4/4 beat, this was music primarily created for European discos but between Josky showing off his amazing vocal range, Franco and Michelino overdubbing guitar track upon guitar track, and a superb batch of songs (including three by Josky), it transcends into a thing of wonder and beauty. Art-rock? World-music? No, just a genius having fun. And yes, you can dance to it. (Note: Grace Music issued this album on CD also, keeping the original album track running order). A+
Bina Na Ngai Na Respect (Sonodisc CDS 6865) Here's a confusing one. Starts off with side two of 1984's Chez Rhythmes et Musique A Paris comprising the wonderful "12600 Lettres" in which, over a hooky guitar riff and super-catchy chorus, Franco reads letters from female fans complaining about their sister-in-laws for 12 minutes (he could read a vacuum cleaner repair manual over that music and you wouldn't mind) and then its less irresistible sequel "Debat" in which Franco and the band discuss the issue for another 12 minutes as the same music plays at lower volume in the background. Follows with two (of four) tracks from 1988's Cherche une Maison a Louer Pour Moi Cherie featuring Nana and Baniel -- "Trahison" with its ringing guitars and great horn chart and "Detrius" with the girls' angelic voices over a snazzy bass-led disco beat, both excellent -- and then "Ekoti Ya Nzube" from the second of 1985's Mario LPs with yet another euphoric sebene. Concludes with 1981's classic 17-minute "Bina Na Ngai Na Respect", written and beautifully sung by Ntesa Dalienst from the point of a woman asking for respect on the dance floor, with one of the longest (and best) sebenes in the TPOK Jazz catalogue. So I guess just consider it yet another wonderful Franco dance album and turn it up. A-
1984/1986 (Sonodisc CDS 6866) This generous 73-minute CD of prime Franco music taken off three equally excellent European LPs from the noted period includes three (of four) from 1986's A Nairobi ("Boma Ngai Naboma Ya", "Kuna Okeyi Obongisa", "Massikini", omitting "Eperduement"), three (of four) from 1986's Bois Noir ("Mazamba", "Bois Noir", "Bomba Pema", omitting "Clemence") and two from 1984's A L'Ancienne Belgique ("Pesa Position", "K.S.K.", omitting "Ndaya" and "Mukungu"). It's one of the best Sonodiscs, flowing gracefully from the first track to the last in an impressive display of Afropop at its finest. With its modern production values and full sound, it envelops you in lush harmony vocals, warm brass with lots of room for sax great Empompo Loway, brilliant guitar on the extended sebenes, gorgeous melodies, hooks and more hooks. The fantastic collection of songs were all written by TPOK Jazz's vocalists: Kiesse Diambu sings Empompo's "Bois Noir" with its bachata intro as well as his own uptempo numbers "Mazamba" and "Bomba Pema", Djo Mpoy sings his catchy "Massikini" with its sweet harmony vocals by Kiesse and Denis Bonyeme, and Josky sings his slow burner "KSK" in one of his best performances with crucial vocal input by Madilu System and Malege de Lugendo. But the album belongs to Madilu who sings lead on half the tracks, most notably his two fabulous self-penned hits: the 12-minute "Boma Ngai Naboma Ya" which opens the album with its pleading vocals and lovely tune featuring a great horn chart and a sebene that doesn't want to end, and the finale "Pesa Position" featuring his smoky tenor alongside vocalists Malege and Denis Bonyeme and, of course, Franco's guitar in a strong contender for the most beautiful piece of music in the entire Franco catalog. (Note: A twofer CD of A L'Ancienne Belgique and Bois Noir was issued by Grace Music and is also highly recommended.) A
Kinshasa Makambo Live 79/80/81 (Sonodisc CDS 6951) DUD
Coupe du Monde (Sonodisc CDS 6952) CHOICE CUTS: "Sambwa Sambwa", "Soki Odefi Zongisa."
Les Annees 70 (Sonodisc CDS 6953) DUD
Ekaba-Kaba (Celluloid LP 9508) This three-song 1987 album, vinyl-only at the time and never reissued on CD, was one of the first Franco records to embrace modern soukous (i.e. Paris-Brussels) production values and remains the absolute best. The record blasts off with the side-long title track which jumps out of the speakers and never lets up for 15 minutes and 45 seconds. The album was mastered bright and hot so the drums crack like a whip and the five-guitar army generates a sonic assault unique in Franco's discography. "Ekaba-Kaba" has a killer riff, strong vocals by Franco, Malege and Madilu and fantastic lead guitar by Gerry Dialungana, Dizzy Mandjeku and Franco himself. Guitars keep piling on as the track progresses in this brilliant, unrelenting piece of music. Side two opens with the amazing "Mobembo Ekosila Titi" where lead and backing vocals fight for supremacy over the playful bass playing of Decca Mpudi, resolving into perhaps the quintessential sebene with a piercing guitar line that pushes the rhythm section to rock even harder for the last two minutes of the song before the horns enter to give us another jolt. The joyous "Cherie A", with its otherworldly guitar trills, gives all the wonderful singers on the album a chance to shine until the sebene kicks us into higher gear yet again. This is earth- shaking soukous. Thrilling. Powerful. PLAY LOUD. (Note: The first 8 minutes of "Ekaba-Kaba" can be found on Celluloid's superb various-artists soukous comp African Connection Vol. 1: Zaire Choc!.) A+
Sam Mangwana/Franco et TP OK Jazz: For Ever (Syllart 38775-1 LP, 38775-2 CD) The better of two albums that Franco and Mangwana made together with studio pros in 1989 was the last Franco album released in his lifetime as he was quite ill by this time and would die later that year. The album cover shows him sadly emaciated and caused immediate concern by his fans at the time. Not half as intense as Ekaba-Kaba, it's still a solid modern soukous album with catchy tunes, electronic keyboards and femme choruses all pitching in as the music makes its way to the highly pleasurable sebenes. And, of course, wonderful singing by Mangwana. (Note: The CD version includes 3 good-to-great bonus tracks taken from Mangwana's 1987 album Aladji including the poppish "Aladji," "Toyaki Kobina" which blasts off midway through, and best of all the super-charged "Trans-Beros," which leads off Celluloid's multiple-artist soukous comp African Connection Vol. 1: Zaire Choc, an essential purchase for Afropop fans). B+
Les Rumeurs (Inedits 1988-1989) (Sonodisc CDS 6981) Unfinished when he died in 1989, recording on these five Franco compositions was completed by guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku and TPOK associates several years later once financing and legal hassles were temporarily resolved. Released by Sonodisc in 1994, it makes for a fine coda to Franco's amazing discography. Every track on this great-sounding album is strong and together they convene into an impressive whole. The first two songs, both 12-minute chorus-heavy epics featuring Franco's audibly less powerful vocals, respond directly and harshly to the rumor-mongers who spoke of his illness: "Laissez-nous tranquilles" (Leave us alone) and the title track subtitled "Baiser ya juda" (Judas kiss). "Batela Makila Na Ngai" features a more upbeat keyboard-heavy vibe, "Fabrice Akende Songo" has a fabulous extended sebene and the closer "Mbanda Akana Ngai" features some beautiful guitar work. We should be glad these songs were completed as it's a fantastic modern Congolese soukous record by this legendary band featuring catchy tunes, superb musicianship and wonderful singing by Sam Mangwana and the band. R.I.P. Le Grand Maitre Franco. A-
T.P O.K Jazz: Somo! (Tamaris TMS91006 CD) In which Simaro, VP of TPOK Jazz and Franco's right hand man, keeps the band together and, two years after Le Grand Maitre's death, produces not only the most modern-sounding of the TPOK albums, but one of the best. A wonderful team of singers and musicians including veterans like singers Josky and Djo Mpoyi and guitarists Simaro and Gerry Dialungana join forces with electronic percussion and synths like they invented this shit, which they did. Franco's presence can't help but be missed but his disciples will propel you onward and upwards. A splendid example of Afro-Cuban rumba transformed into Paris-based Congolese soukous by legendary masters. A-
Thanks to the following individuals who contributed to this project in one way or another: Ken Braun, Patrick Brown, Robert Christgau, Graeme Ewens, Ronnie Graham, Kasongo Musanga, Phil Overeem, Gary Stewart and, of course, Francois Luambo Makiadi a.k.a. Congo Colossus a.k.a. The Sorcerer of the Guitar a.k.a. Le Grand Maitre a.k.a. FRANCO.