WHY FRANCO BECAME A TITAN
By Jerome Ogola (OK Jazz Ambassador)
It isn’t for every musician that leading radio stations dedicate a whole programme, at times running into weeks to commemorate their anniversaries. It isn’t for every musician that books are written. It isn’t for every musician that fans converge to mark their anniversary and lastly no musician has a dedicated fan base loyal to their works
There must be some factors, unique to him,which made Grand Maitre Franco outstanding. We seek to examine a few to mark 28 years of his death. Franco died on 12th October in Namur hospital in Belgium, where he had been hospitalised
A musician’s work is to make songs. His finished product is a song thus the only way to quantify a musicians work is count his songs. As a dedicated Franco fan, I have so far managed close to 900 songs. As I had said earlier, Franco band OK Jazz did an estimated 1300 songs. Anyone who understands the process that a song (rumba) undergoes from the skeleton at composition to when it is finally ready for sale will tell you that it is no mean task to achieve that feat. A musician who does 100 songs in his career, and they are very few isn’t your ordinary musician
Franco’s longest track is 24 minutes and on average, one of his songs would run for 7 minutes because most if the 50s and 60s songs are short.Going by this figure, one can play OKJ songs for 9100 minutes or 152 hours, none stop! This is a whole 6 days and nights none stop. If you run a 24 hours joint, you can give your patrons a 6 day Franco treat! If you stop to sleep, it will run for a whole 12 days!
Franco could sing, play both solo and rhythm (he played acoustic rhythm in “nalinga yo yo te” and like any other veteran musician, he could attempt a host of other music instruments. However his primary role was as a guitar player. That man was pure magic in solo guitar. Top range guitarists to date acknowledge his prowess was beyond comparison. Some follow his music just to get more of his guitar.
As I write this an early 1970s song, “tata na bebe” is playing and to be honest with you I doubt anyone can do what France is doing on guitar. It is for this reason that I petitioned the leading guitar manufacturers to name at least an instrument in honour of this wizard as it has always been the normal with such instruments. I also do not understand how the custodians of the world records in the Guinness Book of Records have spaces for useless ventures but can’t feature this extra ordinary guitarists whose exploits on the fretboard is a subject of study by musicologists
There are several stages of guitar playing. The initial stages of learning the chords is for anyone with fingers, as long as they learn. The second stage is that which comes with intense practice. This is for those willing to take long hours practicing and this gets better with experience. The last stage is that of Franco, Nico and other top guitarists. This is pure talent! No amount of practise or leaning gets anyone to this point. It is amazing how someone struggles to explain manoeuvres Franco made with so much ease on his guitar
Bands come and go. They are made, they split they die and life goes on. African Jazz of Grand Kalle, never lived beyond the 60s. It suffered a major blow when Nico, Let,, Izeidi and others defected in 1963. This band which was the big band of the 60s and even represented the nation in independence fete in January 1960, couldn’t fully recovered from that major “big bang”. It brought in new musicians but never remained it’s lustre. The band which was the very first fully professional band after it evolved in the Opika studios in 1953, died permanently in 1969.
Other big bands of the 60s, Negro Success of Bavon and African Fiesta Sukisa of Dr Nico, lasted for only one decade. Those familiar with the happenings in bands will tell you it isn’t easy to maintain a galaxy of stars, mostly ambitious in any group for long, and manage to replace them in time in case of defection, in a manner that won’t injure the band’s performance. How Franco managed to keep his band intact until his death is a subject of study as well
Dizzy Mandjeku narrated to me how he got into OKJ after being lured by Bumba Masa, another musician, who was a mutual friend. The question is how does one manage to notice and bring on board such a huge galaxy of stars? At some point, in its peak OKJ had Dizzy, Gerry, Noel and Thierry all solo guitarists at one go. All these are too good to be true soloists. Getting them all on board isn’t a walk in the park. How Franco managed this is yet another mystery. You will notice that some bands folded after losing musicians to OKJ. Such are orchestra continental which lost Josky and Wuta and Grand Maqusards which lost Madilu, Dizzy, Mangwana, Gerry, Lokombe, to OKJ either directly or after sojourning in other bands.
He also had dalliance with some really talented musicians which contributed to the bands repertoire without necessarily being members of the band. Such are the legendary footballer Cumbria musician, Mayaula Mayoni, the 1912 born Camile Feruzi of the accordion fame, Nguashi N’timbo among others.
If one is to compile a list of the very best vocalists in the history of rumba Congolese, some few OKJ musicians must make it to the top ten. It could be Vicky the star of the 60s or Josky the star of the 80s or Youlou the star of the 70s or any other. If it was about the best sax player, it could be Verckys or Musekiwa or Loway or even the crazy Matalanza
Franco is not credited as the originator of any milestone in the development of rumba congolaise, despite having been active in the music scene at it earliest stages in 1953-1960. Bill Alexandre takes the credit of introducing the electric guitar, that which turned out to be the engine that drives rumba. He sat in recording sessions and also taught the very first guitarists. His fellow Belgian and a Jazz musician Fud Candrix introduced the sax and taught Isaac Musekiwa, then with African Jazz
The clarinet was introduced to recording by Leon Bukasa and the guitar formation that includes the mi solo is attributed to the African Jazz guitarists Nico, Dechaud and others. Franco only took what others had invented and made it perfect. He took the mi solo concept to another level by modifying it to suit his style, odemba and for this case, as Dizzy explains, there is no “might solo” in the context of African Jazz, by simply put, a special solo, that which runs to fill the gap left by the first soloist
Having played with Afrisa and Maqusards, Dizzy understands to well the nitty gritty of these two guitar formations,thel African Jazz school and the OK Jazz school. The two bands did African Jazz school while Bavon’s Negro did OKJ school of rumba
At OKJ,though Papa Noel played this guitar, second solo,in some rare occasions, it was mostly done by Franco himself or Thierry whom he recruited specifically for this role. Franco excelled in perfecting the inventions of others
Lastly one of the factors that may’ve made Franco grow that big, is his humble background. Poverty is a very good nurture of talent. Someone who eats hooves for a meal is more likely to work had in class than he who had real beef for dinner.
No footballer comes from the palatial homes in exclusive neighbourhood. They all come from the heart of the slums
Having lost a father at a tender age, Franco had no option but to succeed in life. His mothers predicament as a widow provided Franco the very first platform to try his talent. While other boys made cars for toys, young Franco made a three stringed guitar which he used to entertain customers at his mother’s bread shop in Ngiri Ngiri, a slum in Kinshasa!