Mozart of Africa

I was excited to come across the short biopic below from CCTV News about Congolese musician and bandleader, Franko Luambo Makiadi. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Franco’s band, OK Jazz. And I’m not the only one. OK Jazz composer and guitarist Simaro Lutumba is seen in the clip talking about how people even died at a concert in Africa trying to get close to Franco!

Legendary though he might have been across Africa, though, Franco went relatively unknown on the global circuit, including in the US, throughout his extensive musical career. Even these days, with a revival of retro African music, he isn’t nearly as known as, say, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, whose life was even portrayed on Broadway. And yet, the two share many similarities.

Both were musically active around the same time, and both were incredibly talented. Both of them portrayed some unbalanced criticisms and stereotypes about women in their songs. And both were politically controversial figures, albeit on different ends of the spectrum. Whereas Fela openly criticized Nigerian politicians in his songs, Franco wrote praise songs to Zaire’s self-proclaimed president for life. There are arguments, however, that Franco and other Congolese musicians couched criticisms of their government in songs about the trials of love and heartbreak, not to mention a tailor whose needle was taken away.

Regardless, during Franco’s time, most listeners around the world would have been oblivious to the content, let alone potential hidden meanings, of these songs, because they were sung primarily in Lingala. Accordingly, a language barrier has been cited as one of the reasons for the lack of wide-scale appeal of Congolese music in general. And yet, OK Jazz was and still is embraced in African countries where English is the official language and where Lingala isn’t spoken. In fact, the biopic below was probably produced in Kenya, where Congolese music has been immensely popular.

From the vintage concert clips I’ve seen, it seems OK Jazz toured outside Africa during their latter years. Incidentally, my least favorite of their songs come from this period. I don’t claim to be a music critic, but I wonder if they might have had a larger following, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, had they toured in the ’70s. They still had their horn section—replaced by some cringe-inducing synthesizer sounds in the ’80s—and the beats were more polyrhythmic and just more interesting, in my humble opinion.

Regardless of the reasons music lovers around the world didn’t get to experience OK Jazz in real time during their heyday, we can again give thanks to the internet for archiving their legacy. And what a legacy it is. The biopic mentions that Franco recorded probably around 1,000 songs during his lifetime. My collection of OK Jazz songs now numbers a little over 300, so there’s even so much more for yours truly to discover.

Especially if you’ve never before heard of Franco, I invite you to watch the biopic and learn more about the man who, as one of the commentators mentions, could easily be deemed the “Mozart of Africa.”

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