Last month marked 25 years since he went to rest. Born Francois Luambo Luanzo Makiadi on July 6Th 1938 in the village of Sona-Bata, in the Bas Zaire region, he would go on to conquer the continent with his captivating compositions. His father, Joseph Emongo was a railroad worker while his mother sold homemade bread at the local market.
He was dubbed "The Sorcerer of the Guitar" for his exceptional guitar stringing skills. But it was his ability as a bandleader and organizer that made him stand out. He also earned himself several other nicknames and titles such as "Le Grande Maitre”.
Franco was a social maverick and commentator. His artistic genius is unparalleled, despite the fact that he only attained limited formal education. His songs touched on a wide variety of topics affecting Congolese in all sections of society as well as Africans at large.
He sang praises and also denounced certain individuals whose behavior he considered disagreeable. Franco's music was gospel to most Congolese people. His lyrics often landed him in trouble with the authorities, as is evidenced by his two stints in Jail.
While other bands and musicians come and go as fads and dance styles change, His music remained close to the heart of several people, many of whom did not understand the language. His legacy is eternal. There may not be a single African musician who will claim popularity anywhere close to what Franco had.
His music transcended generations. It was the kind of music which parents and their children could listen to and enjoy. The volume of his discography is incredible. He released upwards of 150 albums, many of which can be safely considered certified classics.
A Brief Biography
Franco began his musical career at a tender age. By age 7, he had already built his first home made guitar. He played the guitar to attract customers to his mother's market stall.
Franco’s musical talent was first tapped by guitarist Paul Ebengo Dewayon who took him under his wing and taught him the subtleties of guitar playing. Franco made his professional debut in Dewayon's Watam band at age 12.
While at the band, he wowed audiences with his exemplary guitar skills while playing a guitar which was almost his size, then. He cut his first solo record titled Bolingo na ngai na Beatrice (My love for Beatrice) in 1953.
In 1956, along with Jean Serge Essous, He formed the band OK Jazz. It would later be renamed to TPOK Jazz. When Essous left the band, two years later, He took over as band leader and never looked back. The band grew from the original 6 members to over 50 members 30 years later.
For over 30 years, he recorded prolifically and performed in many places worldwide, while maintaining a distinct style. His band dominated the charts and produced over 150 albums most of which sold over 50,000 copies. He died on October 12 1989 leaving behind 18 children as well as a huge legacy.
The Genesis of T.P.O.K Jazz
In June 1956, Franco, Jean Serge Essous and De La Lune, who were all session musicians at the Loningisa Studios, got together to form a band which they named Ok Jazz. The name originated from the bar in which they played which was named OK bar. But the name OK could also be taken to mean Orchestra Kinois.
Essous was a talented horns man playing both the clarinet and the saxophone. Other original band members were bassist Roitelet, percussionists La Monta LiBerlin and Pandy, guitarist Dessoin and vocalist Rossignol.
The band, then consisting of a bunch of eager beaver teenagers soon caught the imagination of the Zairean public. It would soon become apparent that they were destined for greater things. The rhumba they played was fast paced and involved a lot of improvisation.
They played together on a daily basis at a studio owned by a Greek businessman, and played occasionally at functions such as weddings. The band's introductory album was labeled On Entre OK on sort KO (you enter ok and leave knocked out), composed by Franco.
This was later to become the bands motto. In 1957, lead vocalist Rossignol quit the band over personal reasons, but the band never lost a step. He was ably replaced by Edo Nganga.
Later that year, Zimbabwean saxophonist Isaac Musekiwa joined the band. He was to become one of Franco's closest friends. At this time, the band's leadership was shared equally among Vicky Longomba, Essous and Franco. When Vicky and Essous left to join Africa Jazz In the early 60s, Franco assumed overall leadership of OK Jazz permanently.
Africa Jazz whose band leader was Joseph Kabasele aka Le Grande Kalle, was the most influential band in the Congo. It had in its ranks an array of talented musicians including Tabu Ley, legendary guitarist Docteur Nico Kasanda as well as saxophonist Manu Dibango.
Following the departure of Vicky and Essous along with several other musicians, Franco recruited vocalists Mujos, Kwamy and guitarist Simaro Lutumba. Saxophonist Verkys Kiamanguana replaced Essous.
Essous, along with other musicians from Congo Brazaville such as De La Lune, Celestine Kouka and Edo Nganga, later founded one of the most famous orchestres of the time, Les Bantous de la Capitale, based in Brazzaville. Les Bantous was later to become a national Institution in Congo-B.
OK Jazz and Les Bantous often shared and exchanged musicians. Among the musicians who played on both sides in the 80s was Papa Noel. Other prominent musicians who played for Les Bantous were Tchico Tchicaya and Pamelo Mounka. The two bands also cooperated on an album Pont Sur le Congo
Most of the band members were well educated by contemporary standards. Africa jazz leader Le Grande Kalle considered his band as an aristocratic band whose music was geared towards the well to the well-educated or well to do members of society.
Franco on the other hand geared his music towards the masses. This he did by singing about topics that affected regular members of society on a daily basis. From around this period, Franco resorted to a slower more methodical rhythm with more finesse and subtlety.
In 1962 Franco embarked on his first ever foreign tour when he visited Nigeria culminating in the release of Cherie Zozo. Later that year, Vicky rejoined the group as did vocalist Lola Checain.
By the mid-sixties OK Jazz had now been re-named TPOK Jazz and had expanded to over 20 musicians. The TP prefix stood for Tout Puissant (All Powerful). It now boasted an array of talented players and was ready to challenge Africa Jazz for the position of Congo's and in effect Africa's premier group.
This became rather easier when Tabu Ley and Nico Kasanda left Africa Jazz to form Africa Fiesta. Franco's music appealed to people mainly because it discussed issues that affect the common man on a daily basis.
Thanks to a then booming economy, Congolese bands were now able to utilize the latest western technology which included electric guitars basses and amplifiers. Franco was amongst the pioneer musicians that embraced this new technology.
Ultimately, TPOK began to produce music of a much higher quality than what was being churned out from anywhere else in Africa. Congo had now firmly taken its place as Africa's premier music nation.
Towards the late sixties, Franco had to deal with a major revolution in his band when singers Kwamy Munsi and Mujos led nine other musicians in defecting from the band. Only a few months later it was saxophonist Verkys Kiamanguana turn to defect.
Verkys was an excellent horns man whose soulful saxophone skills were the perfect complement to Franco's solo guitar. He was also an excellent showman and added spice to the band's concerts with his frenzied hornsmanship and unconventional dress code. When He left the band, He established his own band which He named Orchestre Veve, which gave Franco a serious run for its money during the 70s.
Veve released several chart topping albums among them Lukani, Se Kizengi, Nakomitunaka, Zonga Andowe among others. Verkys also owned and managed two other bands: Orch Kiam and Orch Lipua Lipua. Among the musicians who played for Verkys in the 70s are Pepe Kalle and Nyboma. Verkys inexplicably quit the music scene in the early 80s presumably to concentrate on business.
These were just some of many such hurdles that Franco had to handle during the band’s formative years. To replace Verkys, Franco recruited Rondot Kassongo wa Kassongo who had played in Orchestre Negro success alongside Franco's brother Bavon Marie Marie. Additionally, Franco recruited an immensely talented solo guitarist in Mose Fan Fan.
The arrival of Fan Fan revitalized the string section tremendously. He injected a new wave of guitar stringing into the sebene, which was flashy, faster and more danceable. This style came to be known as Sebene ya ba Yankees Fan Fan also contributed a series of extremely popular hits among them Djemelasi and Mongando.
The Early Seventies
By early 1970s, Franco and his TPOK Jazz had firmly established themselves as Africa's premier singing group. The band was now a huge money spinner and was staging concerts all over Africa including such unlikely venues as Sudan and Chad.
Franco further augmented the strength of the band by recruiting composer/vocalist Sam Mangwana from Afrisa (Owned by Tabu Ley). The recruitment of Mangwana from Afrisa was considered a major coup by music fans and signaled the beginning of an intense animosity between both members and staunch supporters of rival bands Afrisa and TPOK Jazz. This animosity was further deepened as Franco constantly poached musicians from Afrisa up until the late 80s.
In early 1970 Franco parted ways with Vicky Longomba who was then acting as Co-president of the band. Vicky then founded Ochestre Lovy but never regained the success and popularity he enjoyed while at TPOK Jazz.
Mose Fan Fan, the bands flamboyant solo guitarist felt stifled within the Ok Jazz system and quit the band along with vocalist Youlou Mabiala. Together they formed a band called Orchestre Somo Somo.
These two would later split, forming two versions of Somo Somo. Youlou stayed in Kinshasa while Fan Fan travelled to East Africa and later to Europe. Later in the 80s Fan Fan became a prominent member of fearsome foursome known as Quatre Etoiles, which produced several hits in the mid-80s.
Soon after the departure of Fan Fan and Youlou, Tshongo Bavon Marie Marie who was Franco's only brother died in a road accident. Franco was grief stricken to the point that he took a break from music for a long period. The band hit upon rough times as record sales slumped and concerts were sparsely attended.
Upon his return, he recorded several songs in memory of Bavon. He then began rebuilding the band. The rebuilding of OK Jazz coincided with the restructuring of Congo by then president Mobutu Sese Seko under the program of L’aunthenticite.
The name of the country was changed from Congo-Kinshasa to Zaire. All towns, rivers lakes and other geographical features bearing European names were re-named with African names. The people of Zaire were now required to abandon European names and adopt African ones. Franco became L'Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi.
He then set upon a recruitment drive that resulted in several talented musicians joining the band. The list included vocalists Mayaula Mayoni, as well as guitarists, Mpundi Decca, Gege Mangaya, Michelino and Dizzy Madjeku and Saxophonist Empopo Loway. Franco then appointed Simaro Lutumba as the chef d'ochestre.
Thanks to L’Aunthenticite, Franco's interest in traditional African forms deepened with songs like Kinzonzi Ki tata Mbemba (the wisdom of old Mbemba). At the same time he revealed a gentler side with songs like Boma l'heure with its women’s chorus. Mangwana made his presence felt with hits like Luka Mobali Moko.
In 1973 Franco released what proved to be one of his biggest hits, AZDA. This was a song in praise of the local Volkswagen dealership. That same year saw the arrival of vocalist Josky Kiambukuta Londa whom Franco recruited from Ochestre Continentale. Josky was to become one of the bands most popular singers, and composer (probably only second to Simaro Lutumba).
1974 saw the return of Youlou Mabiala to the fold. The following year, Sam Mangwana, true to his new nickname - La pigeon Voyageur (literary translated to The Wandering Pigeon, a moniker that had been given to him for constantly changing bands and address), left the band to establish a solo career in Ivory Coast. He was replaced by Pepe Ndombe Opetum, recruited from rival band Afrisa International as was horns man Empopo Loway.
In 1975 Franco released yet another classic hit Bomba bomba mabe which was a love song inspired by a lady - Marie Josephine with whom Franco had a long romantic relationship. The album also featured the song Libala ya bana na bana, composed by Lola Checain.
Later that year, Simaro caught the eye of the Congolese public with his song Radio Trottoir which roughly translates to “The Grapevine” (he said, she said ....). In the song, Simaro complains about constant gossiping and speculation among people, and the problems it creates.
The Late Seventies
By the mid-70s Franco was one of Zaire's wealthiest citizens. He had heavily invested in real estate business and owned property in Belgium and France. More importantly, he owned Kinshasa's four largest and most popular nightclubs, the biggest of which was Un-deux-trois.
The band played there every weekend to full audiences. Then for unknown reasons he converted to Islam and adopted the Islamic name Abubakkar Sidikki. Though he became a Muslim by word, Franco never practiced Islam.
1976 saw the arrival of yet another talented singer in Ntessa Dalienst Zitani as well as guitarist Gerry Dialungana. Dalienst had been playing with Festival Macquisards, which was one of the hottest groups at the time. Among those who played at Macquisards were Kiesse, Dizzy, Jerry, Michelino and Matalanza.
Franco is rumored to have caused the breakup of the band which at some point seemed destined to overtake him in popularity. That same year one of OK Jazz's most successful hits, Cherie Bondowe, a composition of Mayaula Mayoni was released in an album that also included such hits as Alimatou and Bisalela.
Dalienst followed this up with his own composition, Lisolo Ya Adamo na Nzambe (Adam's conversation with God). The song, which turned out to be one of the most controversial was an incisive observation of the relationship between Men and women. In this song, Dalienst accused men of blaming women for all their faults.
The song portrayed Dalienst's as a women’s rights champion, a reputation He enhanced with songs like Bina Na Ngai na respect and Dodo.
In 1977 Franco introduced a handicapped female singer known as Mpongo Love. Despite her handicap (a result of a polio infection in her childhood), she went on to become one of the band’s most popular singers on the strength of her charming, vivacious voice and her songwriting.
Congolese guitar maestro, Papa Noel Nedule joined soon after. Later that year the band represented Zaire in what was and still is Africa's largest ever cultural event, The Festac, staged in Lagos, Nigeria.
In 1978 Franco's career hit its lowest ebb following a lapse in judgment on his part. He had already tested the patience of the authorities on several occasions due mainly to the controversial nature of some of his songs.
His last straw was the time he released two songs: Helene and Jacky. The songs were described by his contemporaries as pornographic and infantile even by today's standards.
Upon their release, he was summoned by the attorney general along with his mother. When the song was played, Franco's mother was horrified. Franco along with several band members were tried and sent to prison. Two months later due to street protests, Franco was released.
Later that year Franco released an album, Tailleur which contained a veiled criticism of the attorney general. By far the band's biggest hit that year was Nabali Misere (I am married to misery), a composition of Mayaula Mayoni. In the song Mayaula played the part of a man trapped in a loveless marriage.
The song contains the refrain Lelo Ya bango Lobi ya Ngai, Mokili tour a tour, which literary translates to "What goes around comes around". That was Mayaula's last hit with the band as he quit the band to start his solo career.
In 1979, Franco moved his recording base from Kinshasa to Brussels to take advantage of superior recording facilities. Franco embarked on a tour of West Africa that took in 8 countries and culminated in Josky's mega hit Propretaire.
In the song which is one of OK Jazz's biggest ever hits, Josky played the part of an attractive young woman whose advances towards a desirable young man have been spurned. The commonly repeated phrase "Nasambwe oh ngai mwasi kitoko boye" means I am shocked because I am so beautiful
The Early Eighties
The period of the late seventies to the early eighties found Franco and his TPOK Jazz at the very peak of their powers. They dominated the music charts across the continent. They were now releasing several chart-topping albums every year, while staging concerts in various countries in Africa and Europe.
Closest Rivals Afrisa International simply did not have the personnel to compete with them. Orchestre Veve which had provided them with a lot of competition in the 70s was on its last legs, while Africa Jazz fizzled out with Jose Kabasele’s demise.
In addition, Franco was installed as the honorary president of the musicians union UMUZA and was awarded the title of The Grand Master of Zairean music. If cloud nine ever existed, Franco was riding it.
A list of OK Jazz members now read like a musical dream team. The frontline now consisted of stalwarts like Josky, Madilu, Dalienst, Opetum, and Youlou. The string section had Simaro, Papa Noel, Dizzy Madjeku, Jerry and Wuta Mayi among others, while the horn section had Matalanza, Musekiwa, Empopo Loway and Rondot Kassongo.
Josky and Dalienst became the bands biggest stars (besides Franco) in the early eighties. Josky thrilled fans with compositions like Soweto, Nostalgie, Mbanzi ya Kamundele, and Tokabola sentiment (known to many fans as Kizunguzungu).
Dalienst made his presence felt with Tantine, Mouzi and his biggest hit Bina na Ngai na respect (dance with me with respect). Other big hits of the period included Papa Noel's Tangawusi Opetum's Mawe and Youyou Simaro's Mandola and Mbawu Nakorecuperer.
Franco himself contributed a medley of mega hits, notably Tokoma ba Camarade pamba, Chacun pour soi, Tres Fache and Sandoka Sandoka was a moving ballad about a girl who was in love with someone but could not marry him because members of her family did not like him. The song features sublime vocals by Opetum and Dalienst, augmented by a harmonious chorus.
In 1982 Franco re-united with Sam Mangwana to produce an album labeled Cooperation. It included the song popularly known as Odongo, which was about a Kenyan trader.
It also included the classic hit Zala sportif which is considered by many to be Sam Mangwana's best ever composition. The album also included Simaro's classic Faute ya commercante (the businesswoman's fault).
Franco also re-united with Michelino and his arch-rival, Tabu Ley to produce a series of albums, the first of which was titled L'evenement (the final event) and contained the song Lisanga ya Banganga which means an association of sorcerers (sorcerers of music).
In that album, the trio also paid tribute to Le Grande Kalle who had just passed away. Franco hailed him as the Father of modern Zairean music. It also contained the songs Nazua Nganga Wapi (another tribute to Le Gande Kalle) and Ngungi.
1983 was a banner year for TPOK jazz. That year they released no less than 10 albums and toured North America for the very first time. It was the year that saw Madilu System step up and become the bands lead singer, thanks to the first of a series of classic duets recorded with Franco.
The first album Chez Fabrice contained the song titled Non which was a slow, moving folklore in which Franco and Madilu sang about love, marriage and life in general. Non was a true masterpiece not just for its content but also for its excellent rhythmic arrangements.
Mamou was another classic Franco – Madilu duet. It was about a married woman who cheats on his husband while he is away on business trips. Madilu wowed audiences with his silken tenor voice which earned the title 'the man with the golden voice’.
Franco, Tabu Ley and Michelino teamed up once again to produce the album Lettre a monsieur directeur general. The song suite lettre number 2 on the same album was an autobiography by Franco, in which he answered many of the criticisms that were labeled against him such as accusations of sorcery.
Michelino then teamed up briefly with TPOK Jazz to release his own album titled Benediction and featuring among other songs Pointe carre and Mutambula Mpimpa. As a follow up to this, the blockbuster hit Missile was released featuring Josky as lead vocalist and Michelino's magical fingers working the lead guitar.
Other hits of 1983 included the album Franco presente Josky Kiambukuta which featured Alita, Mehida and Massikini, Franco presente Youlou Mabialla, featuring Motema na ngai, Television and Franco presente Lutumba Simaro.
Simaro's album included the song Mbongo-money-L'Argent which was a soulful lament about the problems created by money. He lamented that money divides families, ends marriages, breaks up friendships etc. The song was delivered in piercing fashion by Djo Mpoyi, whose silken voice wowed many a listener.
In the same album was another of Simaro's classics Lopango Batekisa, which Josky delivered in typically brilliant fashion, amid a medley of ringing saxophones and swinging trumpets.
In the beginning of 1984 Franco and Madilu teamed up for yet another duet. This one was titled Makambo ezali Bureau. It was a song about a certain gentleman who while living in Europe, has abandoned his family and even though he sends them money and writes letters, they miss his physical presence.
The, song was sung in a dialogue form by Madilu and Franco, while the refrain reminds the listeners that Franco is announcing it in America, Brussels and Paris. The second song on that album, Kimpa Kisangameni (meeting of witches) was a tirade against sorcery with a reference to his late brother Bavon Marie Marie, whose death was believed to have involved sorcery.
The flip side of the album featured the song 12,600 letters. In the song Franco read out some of the letters he received from female fans who complained about the mistreatment they suffered at the hands of their in-laws. The refrain of the song goes Bandeko ya basi yo yo yo yo balingaka basi ya bandeko mibali te mpo na nini? (Why do sisters in law harass their brothers’ wives?)
The next album titled L'Ancienne Belgique saw Madilu firmly establish himself as TPOK jazz's lead singer. The song Pesa Position (state your position) was a big hit especially among the youth because of its very danceable up tempo beat. Madilu was now the band's most prominent vocalist.
In 1985, Franco released what turned out to be his biggest hit ever. The song, Mario, was a soap opera-like song about a gigolo who despite being highly educated has chosen not to apply for jobs. He would rather sit at home and live off his rich lover, a woman twice his age.
Madilu followed this up with a series of big hits such as Boma Ngai na boma yo (tit for tat), Merci bapesaka na Mbua and Burreau de couerr. Madilu was now the most popular member of the band. Fans started requesting for songs in which he featured, wherever TPOK Jazz staged a concert.
Then in 1986 the band was hit by yet another defection when Josky and Dalienst led a group of other Ok jazz artistes to defect and form their own band. The reasons for their defection were not given publicly but it was rumored that they were disgruntled at the fact that they were not getting due recognition especially with the emergence of Madilu.
In addition to this, Franco faced further descent when his trusted lieutenant Simaro Lutumba recorded an album outside the Ok Jazz system. The album featured the award winning hit Maya. It appeared that the band was on its last legs but Franco true to his survival instincts, managed to navigate the band through stormy waters.
It was during the Kenya tour of 1986 that Franco might have realized the importance of the duo as fans repeatedly demanded songs composed by Josky and Dalienst. Nevertheless Franco's Kenya tour of 1986 was hugely successful with tens of thousands of fans attending each show as he traversed the country.
On one occasion during a performance in the Lakeside town of Kisumu, thousands of fans who had been locked out of the stadium due their inability to pay for tickets, literally gate-crashed the event by tearing down the weak perimeter fence around the stadium creating a major stampede.
Meanwhile Josky and Dalienst were realizing some success with the release of the album labeled Alerte which also contained the classic hit Lela Ngai na mosika. They followed this up with two more albums: Selengina and Medecin de nuit.
In an attempt to shore up the vocal section, Franco recruited Malage De Lugendo whose silken tenor voice thrilled fans in songs like Celio, Ekaba kaba and Simaro's Testament Ya Bowule, a song which Simaro dedicated to his sister who had just passed away.
Additionally, Kiesse Diambu Ya Ntessa, a stalwart of Afrisa International who had produced such hits as the award winning Zuwa-Te as well as Loumousou defected over to OK Jazz earning himself the nickname "Wanted".
Although he produced several songs at OK Jazz including Ma Zamba and Bomba pema, he never enjoyed the heights of success he enjoyed while at Afrisa. This period also saw Franco experiment with female lead vocalists in the album Franco presente Jolie Detta which featured the hit Massou.
To end the year Franco celebrated the band's 30th anniversary by releasing the riveting hit La vie des homes (the life of men), which he sang along with Madilu. The flip side of the album featured two slow folkloric songs Ida and Celio.
Celio was a duet by De Lugendo and Djo Mpoyi and is a classic example of Franco's superb organization. The voices of the two singers are so similar that you would have to listen to the song many times to realize that there are actually two singers singing one after the other. Which is why, along with Lassa Carlito, some analysts referred to them the 3 tenors.
The Late Eighties
At the beginning of 1987, Franco recorded a song which is considered the most intense 15 minutes ever recorded. The song Attention La Sida (beware of AIDS) was sung mainly in French in order to reach a wider audience.
Amid heavy drums and almost eerie guitars, Franco thundered out an emotional message. He talked about the disease, imploring mankind to be more careful in their relationships, while urging governments to take further steps to fight the epidemic. Even for those who could understand what was being said, Franco's emotional, prophet like outburst sent shivers running through their spines.
In August of that year Franco and TPOK Jazz was among the several musicians invited to perform in the 4th All Africa games concert, the biggest concert in Kenya's music history. The concert featured musicians from All over Africa including Cameroon's Sam fan Thomas and Zambian songbird Anna Mwale.
Eight other albums were released by the band that year, one of which was La response de Mario, Mario's response to the accusations placed on him by Franco. Others included Ekaba Kaba, a song about a tightwad businessman who pays his employees meager wages while laying them off the job at a whim in order to maximize his profits.
In the album Les On Dit, Franco introduced two female vocalists, Nana Akumu and Baniel Bambo, the latter of whom had defected over from Afrisa much to Tabu Ley's bewilderment.
The year ended with the riveting L' Animation nonstop which featured a rendition of some of the bands earlier hits played to modern instrumentals and better recording.
By 1988 Franco had finally managed to convince Josky and Dalienst to return to the fold. Dalienst celebrated his return with the album Franco presente Ntessa Dalienst which featured Mamie Zou and Dodo.
Josky followed this up with his own album which featured the extremely popular hit Mata-Kita-Bloque (get up, get down, Jam). The album also featured a rendition of his early 80s hit Tokabola sentiment.
By now Franco's health was already failing him. Rumors about his health abounded and spread like wildfire, fuelled by the fact that Franco now rarely appeared in public and when he appeared in concert, He only played at 20 minute intervals.
Meanwhile Franco kept everyone in the dark about the nature of his illness, claiming that doctors had been unable to diagnose his illness. He re-converted back to Catholicism from Islam and was once again baptized Francois Luambo Makiadi.
The rest of the TPOK jazz band members continued to record. In November the band released the album Couerr Artificiel featuring 4 compositions by Lutumba Simaro, among the songs in that album was Mangasa sung by Josky, Madilu and De Lugendo.
Even though the band was still going strong, their popularity was plummeting in large part due to the emergence of faster more up-tempo dance styles such as Kwasa-kwasa and Soukous which were perpetrated by among others Pepe Kalle, Kanda Bongo-man and Aurlus Mabele.
The emergence of this faster, and more dilute style all but got rid of the wind section and emphasized the solo guitar as well as drums. This saw most Lingala fans gravitate away from TPOK Jazz, Afrisa and other bands which were now referred to as old school.
By 1989, TP OK Jazz was in serious turmoil. Leading band members such as Madilu and Josky decided to pursue projects outside the band infrastructure. Others like Lugendo, Decca and Dizzy left the band and returned to Kinshasa to pursue other opportunities.
Later that year, Franco once again teamed up with Sam Mangwana to release what turned out to be Franco's last recording. This album's label was Forever which was an eerie premonition of Franco's impending death. The album sleeve showed an upsetting picture of Franco having lost more than half of his weight and looking wrinkled and sickly.
The first track on the album titled Toujours OK (always OK) was sung in Lingala and broken Kiswahili. Franco had now grown distant from the running of the band which was torn apart by internal bickering. Despite being beset by these problems, the band continued to stage concerts in Franco's absence.
Franco was now too frail to perform on stage let alone withstand grueling recording sessions which lasted for hours, days and even weeks. He was now hospitalized at a Belgian clinic.
Then on October 12 1989 came the shattering news. Franco had died in the wee hours of the morning. At his bedside were his sister Marie Louise, his wife Annie, some of his children and some members of the band.
Franco and Politics
Since 1953, Francois Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, 'Franco', been a member of the band first called Bana Loningisa, then OK Jazz and finally TPOK Jazz, and for most of the past two decades he’d been its leader.
His fame and influence had spread from Kinshasa to the provinces, throughout Africa, and then, presumably, into Europe.
The ironies of the “Grand Master” appellation were not lost on Franco. He had always been rebuked for bad behavior. As a kid he had been the scamp, the truant, the blasphemer, the jive-talker, the noise-maker, the law-breaker – as well as the pal, the charmer, the guitar ace, the rising star.
Renowned while still a teenager, not only for his music but also for the way he dressed; for the girls who followed him, and for his rude utterances and for his run-ins with the authorities. Franco seemed to be habituated to controversy.
To many of his compatriots he was a hero. He was one of their own, who had started with nothing more than talent and self-assurance and had earned real wealth and consequence. To others, he was an uneducated upstart. A vulgar disgrace. Fellow musicians both admired and resented him in equal measure.
To successive governments he was possibly a threat and certainly someone who had to be dealt with one way or another. But although his band’s motto was “On entre OK, on sort KO” (you enter OK, you leave KO’d), no one had ever kept him down for the count.
Franco was never an outspoken activist -like fellow artiste Miriam Makeba of South Africa. Neither was he a politico-musical provocateur, like the Nigerian Fela Kuti.
He just wanted to be free to do as he liked - To live and let live. The colonial administrators of the Belgian Congo jailed him in 1958, not for sedition but for numerous reckless-driving offences.
They also banned a song of his that was interpreted as advocating independence, but they only burnished the young musician’s rebel image.
Independence came anyway, in 1960. Franco, with OK Jazz, led four days and nights of celebrations with paeans to the newborn Republic of Congo and its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.
Only seven months later, however, Franco sang an anguished lament for Lumumba’s assassination, and during the ensuing civil war he recorded songs that conveyed a sense of betrayal and danger.
When, in 1966, General Mobutu made a gruesome public display of executing his opponents, Franco reacted with horror and outrage in Luvumbu Ndoki. Mobutu’s henchmen promptly detained and interrogated the songwriter and destroyed every copy of the record they could find.
Upon his release, Franco fled with his band across the Congo River to Brazzaville, where they remained, beyond Mobutu’s reach, for half a year. Mobutu understood that Franco was a genuine man of the people – the same people he was determined to rule.
If he couldn’t extinguish the pop star he would have to co-opt him. The self-titled Supreme Combatant was a megalomaniac and a deceitful, lethal despot. But he obviously respected Franco and loved his music.
Franco didn’t lack that kind of love and respect. But he wanted good things for himself and for his country. So when Mobutu established peace and a semblance of stability in Congo --or Zaire, as he renamed the nation, Franco’s resistance turned into accommodation.
OK Jazz performed at political rallies and state functions and recorded Franco’s songs promoting government policies and praising “the People’s One Leader.” The president rewarded the musician with business advantages, sinecures and official appointments.
Mobutu didn’t make Franco successful or influential (the pop star had already done that for himself quite handily), but he made him wealthy and powerful. Inevitably for one so unruly, Franco chafed under Mobutu’s control. And he voiced his discontent in song. But he did it covertly.
He couched his criticism of Mobutu and his cronies in allegory and wordplay, practicing mbwakela, the artfully shaded Congolese way of hinting at subversive ideas in innocuous terms. He always claimed that he meant only what he said and sang. But whether smiling or straight-faced, few were convinced by these claims.
Franco (like every Congolese and Zairean pop singer) usually sang in Lingala, the common language of 25 million people in Central Africa. Many of those millions could decipher coded meanings in certain of his songs.
They sometimes – perhaps often – misinterpreted his words, but that was bound to happen. Mbwakela, by design, is hard to pin down; that way it eludes the censors and the objects of criticism can’t openly retort or retaliate without confirming unspoken suspicions.
President Mobutu, Franco’s No. 1 fan, got hold of every OK Jazz record as it came out and scrutinized the lyrics, as did so many Zaireans, keenly attuned to discern hidden messages.
Mobutu understood hidden messages; he communicated in them too. He knew he didn’t own Franco’s heart or mind even if he had bought at least part of his soul. He couldn’t get rid of so popular a potential rival, but he could dam the flow of music-business money, retract privileges and curtail liberties as efficiently as he granted them, all very discretely.
And when Franco slipped up badly, recording a couple of extremely obscene songs that got circulated far more widely than he had intended, Mobutu snatched the opportunity to throw him in jail. It was after being released from jail in 1978 that Franco began staying away from Zaire for long periods, touring other African countries more frequently and, increasingly, living in France and Belgium.
He went through a midlife crisis of sorts, divorcing his first wife, remarrying, and buying a large apartment in Paris and a townhouse in Brussels. He founded an international music-publishing house and registered three new record labels beyond Mobutu’s sphere of interference and the grasp of pirates and peddlers in Africa.
He licensed Vraiment En Colère, Vol. 1 and several subsequent albums to specialty labels in the United States, where interest in contemporary African music was just beginning to germinate. He hadn’t yet made any major breakthroughs outside of Africa, but after more than 20 years of national stardom and 15 of continental fame he seemed poised for global success.
The big question for his musicians, for his business and political associates and for his old fans was where this would leave them. They needn’t have worried. Franco may have blundered, said and done things “truly in anger,” made himself scarce in his homeland, split his band in two and dispensed with sidemen altogether for one session. But he would never abandon TPOK Jazz, his loyal supporters or his country.
He may have laughed at being deemed Grand Maître, but he appreciated the honor. It was a signal that he could return home (knowing the Union of Zairean Musicians would not have recognized him so ceremoniously without Mobutu’s consent).
He began slipping quietly into Kinshasa for short visits, during which he might record a few tracks with the twenty-some TPOK Jazz musicians based there, even as he continued recording in Brussels and Paris with the musicians stationed there.
What Made Franco great was neither his guitar wizardry, nor his ability as a composer. It certainly wasn’t his vocal skills. What made him great was his ability as a bandleader, organizer and recruiter of great talent.
In the 35 plus years of its existence, TPOK Jazz which stands for Tout Pouissant Ochestre Kinshasa, produced an array of glittering stars many of whom later launched successful solo careers. A list of TPOK Jazz alumni reads like a musical dream team.
More than anything else, TPOK Jazz was a members’ band, not just for Franco himself but also for the rest of the band members. Members were given due credit and recognition for their contributions. They were allowed to cut their own albums within the Ok Jazz set-up and the more significant band members often had their names and pictures appear on album sleeves.
This is unlike most other bands where the band leader often appears to hog the credit while keeping other band members in the background.
Franco respected people with talent and whenever he discovered a talented musician who would fit in the Ok Jazz mold, he never rested until the musician was a member of the band.
Franco's exceptional organizational skills enabled him to produce sophisticated musical arrangements the caliber of which have yet to be reproduced by any other African band.
Organizing a group consisting of up to 50 musicians is no easy task. Often the band was split into two: 1) A touring band which travelled across the globe on tour with Franco and 2) A home based band led by Simaro Lutumba.
While on a recording session or on tour, the band was manned by a vocal frontline of 4-5 singers. These would be supported by a chorus section providing rich harmonies. The string section usually had 2 solo guitarists, a mi-solo guitarist, a bassist and up to 4 rhythm guitarists.
The fascinating interweaving and intertwining of the various guitar sounds is just one of the aspects of this great band that has not been matched by any other. The Mi-Solo guitar is a phenomenon unique to Congolese and African Music. It provides the interface between the solo guitars and the rhythm guitars. TPOK jazz were the leaders in this phenomenon and made extensive use of it.
The horn section was manned by various trumpets, saxophones and clarinets. Each time a saxophone provided a solo tune, the trumpets provided a thunderous refrain. The song Nganga Lopango Batekisa by Simaro is a perfect example of this arrangement. Not to be left behind were the percussions such as drums which often introduced and punctuated the sebene section.
There were frequent defections but there was always talent available to fill the gaps. Musicians who had left the band were almost always welcome to return to the band.
TPOK after Franco's Departure
Following Franco's death, the body was flown back home accompanied by family and band members. Thousands of mourners massed the airport as the hearse arrived and many more lined the streets of Kinshasa to watch as the hearse which was now covered in the national flag passed through the streets escorted by a parade of Police cars.
The government declared 4 days of mourning. In the following days, Voix du Zaire, the national radio service played nothing but an overdose of Franco songs 24 hours a day. On October 17 Franco was finally lowered to his final resting-place.
Following Franco's death, current as well as former TPOK Jazz members teamed up to produce an album in tribute to Franco, titled Hommage A Luambo Makiadi. An album which had been recorded prior to Franco's death and featured two songs by Ndombe Opetum (Anjela and Tawaba) was released.
Josky followed this up with his own hit album featuring the hit Chandra. Madilu had now adopted the sobriquet Madilu Multisysteme Le Grand Ninja, Josky was now referred to as le Commerndant de Boarde.
Other excellent albums released during that period included Eau Benite by Simaro and the album Somo which featured Maby by Josky and Madilu's Mort Viviant Somida. The band was still going strong and all seemed well.
In 1991, they embarked on a tour of Kenya which was well received by crazed Kenyan fans. However at the end of the last concert after having been paid by the promoters, they were conned out of the entire loot by an unknown middleman. They vowed never to visit Kenya again.
Then the trouble started. Madilu released his own album outside the OK Jazz system. The album titled Na Pokwa Ya Lelo (in the evening of today) featured up tempo versions of some of his earlier songs and was a huge success.
The rest of the band members were not amused and Madilu was suspended for six months. He opted to leave the band and pursue a solo career. Months later the band members ran into a disagreement with members of Franco's family in particular his sister Marie Louise. The family was demanding an unreasonable share of the band's revenue.
The band members could not comply with their demands and opted to form another band which they named Bana OK (People of OK).
This spelled the end of the great TPOK Jazz after 36 years of huge success. Bana OK continued to record and stage concerts all over Africa and Europe with a reasonable amount of success. But they did not scale the heady heights of they enjoyed during the Franco era.
In 1993, Djo Mpoyi whose silken voice wowed fans in songs like Mbongo-money-L'argent and Celio died. Three years later in 1996 Ntessa Dalienst died of a brain tumour.
Other band members who have since passed on include saxophonists Rondot Kassongo and Matalanza and singer Aime Kiwakana Kiala Bana OK has since experienced a further split following the departure of Malage de lugendo and Dizzy Madjeku who led others in forming a new band named OK International.
A new version of TPOK Jazz under the leadership of Youlou Mabialla has also come into existence. Youlou says that the fact that Franco himself nicknamed him the Prince means that He expected him to carry forward the name of the band.
Under the leadership of Lutumba Simaro, Bana OK tried to continue making music. Among the albums released was Tonerre show which was collaboration with Pepe Kalle and Trahison which featured vocals by Koffi Olomide.
Others included Toucher Jouer and Dernier Avertissement (last warning) which features a shorter, faster rendition of Josky's 1979 mega-hit Propetaire.
The Prominent TPOK Jazz members
Lutumba Masiya: Simaro was Franco's Chef de Ochestre. He was an excellent guitarist and composer earning himself the nickname Le Grande Poet because of the soulful and spiritual nature of his songs.
Some of his greatest efforts include Testament Ya Bowule or Couerr artificial. Simaro was rather reticent and rarely appeared in concerts or on album sleeves. He joined the band in 1963 from Orchestre Micra and later became the bands chef d' Orchestre.
Josky Kiambukuta Londa: Josky was a talented vocalist and composer. His voice is the most recognizable among TPOK Jazz members. He has an uncanny ability to vary his voice from the high soprano as he does in the hit song missile all the way to a deep bass as he does in Alerte.
His songs usually feature a slower introductory section followed by the faster, hip swinging sebene section. Josky joined the band from Orchestre Continentale via Africa Fiesta where He played alonside Tabu Ley and Dr Nico Kasanda. At Continental he played longside Wuta Mayi and Bopal Mansiamina. Upon joining Ok Jazz, He immediately made an impact with hits like Monzo and Zenaba.
Zitani Dalienst Ya Ntesa: Yet another talented vocalist and composer in the OK jazz arsenal. He composed and sang several great hits such Bina na Ngai na respect and Mamie Zou.
Before joining Ok Jazz in 1976, Dalienst played in Vox Africa before joining Festival de Macquisards. At its height, Festival featured an array of talented among them, Michelino, Sam Mangwana, Jerry, Dizzy and Matalanza.
It is rumored that Franco was instrumental in breaking up the band which posed a serious threat to his dominance. Dalienst was the perfect complement for vocalists such as Josky and Mangwana.
His voice was excellent for singing backup, chorus sections as is evidenced in songs like Zala Sportiff and Burreau de Couerr. Dalienst died of a brain tumour in 1996.
Mavatiku Visi: Known to most as Michelino was arguably the best guitarist to play with the band. He was also an excellent arranger. Songs featuring Michelino as the rhythm or Mi-solo guitarist have an irresistible, unique beat. Michelino played briefly with Ok Jazz and with Afrisa International, but mainly plied his trade as a session guitarist in Paris.
Biallu Madilu "System": He was also known as the man with the golden voice. Madilu entertained fans throughout the late 80s and early 90s with a combination of his husky tenor voice and stylish compositions such as Pesa Position and Boma Ngai.
Madilu shot to fame after performing several duets with Franco all of which were major hits, before joining Ok Jazz Madilu pursued a solo career. He would go on to release songs like Zunguluke and Nzele. He then joined Tabu Ley's Afrisa before leaving for TPOK Jazz. He died in 2007.
Sam Mangwana: He was nicknamed La pigeon Voyageur because of his nomadic tendencies. He was also a member of the great Festival Macquisards group of the early 70s. Mangwana had two stints at both Afrisa and Ok Jazz before launching a solo career in West Africa.
Mangwana's biggest strength is his versatility. He successfully experimented with West African styles such as Afro-beat and highlife. He also sang in various African languages. His voice is suitable for singing love songs or sentimental songs. Zala Sportiff is a classic example of a song where Mangwana's voice pierces deep into the hearts of listeners.
The Complete Band Member List
1. Francois’ Luambo Lwanzo Makiadi - band leader, lead vocalist, guitarist
2. Jean Serge Essous - clarinetist and saxophonist
3. Lutumba Massiya Simarro(known as Le Grand Poete): guitarist and composer, joined in 1963, also of Orchestre Micra
4. Josky Kiambukuta Londa - singer and composer, also of Orchestre Continentale and African Fiesta
5. Zitani Dalienst Ya Ntesa - singer and composer, also of Vox Africa and Festival de Macquisards
6. Mavatiku Visi (known as Michelino) - guitarist, also of Afrisa Internationale
7. Jean De Dieu Makiese (Madilu Bialu Systeme) - singer and composer, also of Afrisa International
8. Sam Mangwana - (known as Le Pigeon Voyageur): singer, also of Festival de Macquisards
9. Verkeys Kiamanguana Mateta
10. Rondot Kassongo wa Kassongo
11. Mose Fan Fan
12. Youlou Mabiala - vocalist, composer
13. Vicky Longomba
14. Mayaula Mayoni, composer, guitarist and vocalist
15. Mpundi Decca
16. Gege Mangaya
17. Dizzy Madjeku
18. Empopo Loway
19. Pepe Ndombe Opetum - vocalist
20. Gerry Dialungana
22. Malage de Lugendo - vocalist
23. Djo Mpoyi - singer and composer
24. Aime Kiwakana Kiala
25. De La Lune
27. La Monta LiBerlin
31. Edo Nganga
32. Isaac Musekiwa
34. Kwamy Munsi
35. Lola Checain
36. Mpongo Love
37. Papa Noel Nedule
38. Wuta Mayi
39. Kiesse Diambu Ya Ntessa
40. Jolie Detta
41. Lassa Carlito
42. Nana Akumu
43. Baniel Bambo
44. Milanda Barami
- Dan Atuhaire | John Maroko