Syran Mbenza & Ensemble Rumba Kongo: Immortal Franco: Africa's Unrivalled Guitar Legend
A Franco tribute led by Syan Mbenza was always likely to be played with fidelity.
Franco, François Luambo Makiadi, the Congolese "Sorcerer of the Guitar", a big man, was born rural in 1938 and died urban in 1989. His playing was quick, seemed effortless, and grew more expressive, more dimensional, as he aged. His rise to fame coincided with the rise of Congolese rumba, a style inspired by the popularity, in the colonised Congo, of Cuban music, from the 1940s onward. Cuban records sold, Cuban bands toured, and the Congolese made hybrid Cuban-style music of their own. Bands were often named after the hotel, club, or studio that hired them, or after the member who was their nucleus. They were So-and-So's Ace Highlights, or the Location Something Band. Franco, having served a guitarist's apprenticeship under Henri Bowane, co-founded a group named after the OK Bar in Kinshasa. This was in 1955, so the capital was still known by its Belgian name, Leopoldville, for King Leopold II.
It was with OK Jazz and its later incarnation TPOK Jazz that he had his greatest successes. 'Jazz' here didn't mean that the band played American jazz. It was one of those foreign-word borrowings that take hold in certain places at certain times, in the way that bakeries in countries that don't use French as a mainstream language will nonetheless call themselves La Patisserie. The TP in TPOK Jazz stood for tout-puissant, all-powerful. All-Powerful OK Jazz.
This Franco tribute disc marks the 20th anniversary of his death. It's an album of fairly faithful covers. Group leader Syran Mbenza tackles his guitar Franco-style, and there is some nice sebene, the freeflowing Congolese innovation that sees the lead guitarist soar off and work around a theme while a friend keeps a thumb in the song. The opening bars of "Liyanzi Ekoti Ngai Na Motema (Mouzi)" are light as soufflé, vivid as a xylophone. Mbenza is probably best known in the English-speaking world for the work he has done with Kékélé, a rumba-revival band that released its first album in 2001. Rumba, in the Congo, has been overtaken by the faster soukous, but Kékélé was a return to the old way of doing things. A Franco tribute led by Mbenza was always likely to be played with fidelity.
Fidelity is the album's selling point, but it is also the album's problem. Listening to Immortal Franco's respectful version of "Infidelité Mado" reminded me just how rich and free the old one sounds. The tracks here don't have the jangling edge of the originals, the immediacy of a musician finding a song for the first time and making it his own, the sound of a group of young men establishing dominance over a demanding audience that likes them. They're smoother, more relaxed. But then, of course they are, and of course they don't have that newness. How could they?
By losing the fidelity, I suppose. Pulling the old songs in new directions would be another way of paying tribute, but it's not Mbenza's way. Immortal Franco is undangerous. The Ensemble keeps the length of its songs around the five-minute mark, ignoring tracks like "Mario", a 14-minute epic about a leeching gigolo, and trimming "Liyanzi Ekoti Ngai Na Motema (Mouzi)" in half. It stays with cheerful material, not going near the last big song the Sorcerer recorded before his death, "Attention na SIDA". SIDA, in other words, AIDS. "Who gets AIDS?", Franco asked. "Men, women, children," he answered. Two years later he was dead, presumably of the thing he had written a song about. Immortal Franco is here to keep you happy, only dipping into sadness when it reaches "Liwa ya Franco", a reworking of a 1961 song Franco composed to memorialise a dead friend. The Ensemble takes the friend's name out and puts the musician's name in its place. The sadness in Ballou Kanta's voice is too pat, and I felt uneasy listening to it. But after that the mood picks up, the musicians seem to remember themselves, and we go out with "Tour a Tour" in a burst of joy.