Franco died in 1989 at the age of only 51. He remains famous in Africa, but little known in the West. Richard Fordham attempts to demystify him.
Franco was from the Congo. A review of his live performance in that decade described a crowd watching immaculately dressed young men singing while the audience showed little response. About half an hour in a fat toad like man sidled onto the stage and the audience went wild. This was the great man, ‘le tout puissant OK Jazz’ (the All Powerful…).
That story illustrates a major problem with Franco, for a western audience. You have to put up with between 10 and 20 minutes of singing, in a mixture of French and African dialect, to encounter his guitar playing. In order to make his music more accessible to first time listeners, here are a few tracks with notes on where the guitar takes over. The guitar solos vary a lot across Franco’s songs. Enjoy, with the accent on the ‘joy’, the guitar without getting bogged down in the vocals. Imagine how hard this trick was in the days of vinyl!
Track 1: Ndaya: 5.13 where the guitar solo begins. A light dancing figure on the guitar with bits of sax and horns towards the end at 8.30. The fluidity of his playing conceals its skill and difficulty. His style has now become general across Africa, such has been its influence.
Track 2: Tailleur: at 2.30 is one of the typical ‘gear changes’ in his music where it speeds up and sometimes the rhythm changes as well. At 9.30 the enchanting solo begins. A complex pattern repeated with variations and a horn section carries on with variations till the end at 12.43.
Track 3: Katebe. A graceful dance rhythm and at 1.30 the first short guitar solo. At 2.24 a cry of ‘vaya’ and a gear change followed by a delicate solo. At 2.49 vocals, again, but at 7.47 a beautiful dancing style solo. The occasional vocal but this figure carries on with variations until the end at 11.36.
Track 4: Peuch de sol. At 2.12 there is a gear change and a lovely dancing guitar solo. This ends at 2.47 with more vocals. At 7.19 the guitar comes in again with a beautiful solo. This song features many chords than is typical for Franco. Single note lines are still the norm. Repeated guitar chords at 8.33 increase the drama. At 9.80 vocals come back. At 11.20 the guitar returns and with horn background and some vocals carries on till the end at 12.12.
Franco is magnificent, and has enormous panache. Repeated phrases characterise his work, but subtle variations and its sheer charm keep the listener’s attention. One hopes that this note will provide some people with the key to appreciating him.
Are you a fan of Franco, the King of Congo’s guitar music? Let us know in the comments!