My Pop Life #38 : Liberté – Franco & TPOK Jazz

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Liberté   –   Franco & TPOK Jazz

…Liberte, liberte eh na lingi na tikala libre Na sala oyo motema elingi…
(Freedom, I want to remain free and do what I want )
Mama mama ah

I think it was around 1984, I was living with Mumtaz in an attic flat in Finsbury Park and driving my 2nd ever car, a Hillman Minx series 1 (1956) in mulberry green and cream, with bench seats and a gear change on the steering column.    I drove this car down to an address off Balls Pond Road in London which someone I trusted had given me.   Perhaps they came with me, but I can’t remember.  Actually I’m fairly sure they didn’t, I don’t know why I said that.   Too much weed-smoking leaves holes in the memory.   And I was there to buy some more weed, because I’d run out.   The dealer was about 10 years older then me, Jamaican, rastafarian.   He showed me the grass.  It looked fine.  It smelt fine.   He suggested that I roll a joint and sample the wares.  It seemed frankly rude not to.  So I did.

Now I’ve been smoking mary jane since I was 14 years old.  I distinctly remember the first joint I smoked (puffed gingerly), in Simon Korner’s bedroom in King Henry’s Walk, Lewes, sitting at a drum kit (Andrew Rankin’s?) with Matthew Ford also present.  I think I spurned it initially, waving the drumstick airily about, but sooner or later I sampled.   I’d been smoking cigarettes for a couple of years anyway.   Most people smoked hashish in those days – because that’s what there was – black, red or gold.  Moroccan gold mainly, now and again Lebanese red , then Afghani black occasionally.   I don’t think I smoked actual grass until I was 18.   By 1984 though I’d smoked a huge variety of stuff, from the famous Triple Zero pollen from Morocco to the hallucinogenic Thai Stick (which is potent shit)  and also dabbled in other drugs including LSD, speed & cocaine, so smoking weed wasn’t an alarming thing, a challenge, or a worry.  I know it can be, and I’ve had my paranoid moments, but they’ve been very very few and reasonably far between, so what I’m trying to say I suppose is that smoking weed won’t kill you, even if it’s in a stranger’s house with a new crop.

So I rolled and smoked and passed to the left.   It was good.   I handed over a roll of cash and the transaction was finished.   The joint wasn’t though.   We puffed away pleasantly, there may have been a cup of tea, hard to recall through the haze.   The music entangled itself around my ear, winding guitar lines that seemed threaded together and forever in a special new sinuous rhythm.   “Who is this playing?” I asked.   “It’s Congolese music” said my new friend, “It’s Franco“.

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I stared at the album cover.    Franco looked like a smiley Idi Amin Dada, a large African dictator in a green military uniform, smiling back at me.    The music was of considerable beauty and depth.   In fact, it was staggering.   The following day, I had to know if the weed was particularly good, or whether I’d made a major musical discovery.   I went down to Sterns Record Shop on Whitfield St, round the corner from Warren St, very near the Diwan-e-Khas north Indian restaurant which did the best sheek kebab in town, and was Mumtaz and I’s favourite Indian restaurant in London.  Very near where I spent my first 2 years in London on Fitzroy Street W1.  Sterns sold all African Music, with a bit of Caribbean.  I’d bought my 2 Fela Kuti LPs Sorrow Tears and Blood and ITT from there, and true to form, they had the Franco LP : 20eme Anniversaire and I bought it on the spot.   It was a double album full of riches, full of supreme musical joy.  It scarcely left the turntable for the next two weeks, and I eventually went back to Sterns for more.

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I now have over 40 Franco LPs – less than half of his output.  An amazing guitarist, bandleader and cultural giant, he dominated african music for over 30 years from his power base in Kinshasa, starting in the late 1950s playing rumba with amazing fluidity and increasing complexity and beauty until his death from AIDS in 1989.   Born Franco Luambo Makiadi in 1938 his influence still overshadows almost of all the dance music of the African continent.  Landing in Cape Town for work many years later I took a taxi to the hotel and some soukous music was playing, I didn’t recognise it and asked the driver what it was.  “DRC” he answered.  This is what Africans call the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I didn’t realise Congolese music was so prevalent throughout that mighty continent.  And Franco is the colossus who bestrides them all.

I never got to see Franco live, although he did play in Belgium a few times, and I think the reason why so few people even know about him (unlike say Fela Kuti) is because his songs were almost all in Lingala the language of the Democratic Republic of Congo.   It is the most beautiful music in the world. Originally rumba was learned from Cuban sailors who docked in Kinshasa in the 1950s and was picked up by local musicians, but of course the Cuban music would in its turn have been influenced by Africa.

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Patrice Lumumba, democratically elected in 1960

The early songs are short and sweet : Independence Cha Cha (though not typical) celebrates the moment the Belgians formally relinquished power in 1960, but when president Patrice Lumumba (who had fought long and hard for independence) wanted to nationalise the mines in Katanga he was undermined and finally executed in 1961 by dark forces allied to the West in a coup d’etat.  Franco’s music of this early period steers clear of taking sides, giving people escape instead – the phrase ‘On Entre OK On Sort KO’ comes from this period (you come in OK, you leave knocked out!).  The epoch of Mobutu, installed by the US and Belgium, ran from 1965 to 1997, and Franco’s career ran alongside him, often critical, he was in and out of favour depending on the most recent hit and who it had upset.  Mobutu couldn’t afford to alienate him or his fans, and their relationship was interesting.  The music becomes more complex in the late 60s, emerging as a form called soukous and then we have the golden era from which the LP 20eme Anniversaire comes : long dance songs with a rumba beat characterised by the interlocking guitar lines which are so mesmerising and which caught my attention in Islington (no it wasn’t the weed).  But then halfway through each song there is a break : and the beat doubles up, a new shuffle, a new urgency flourishes – this is called the seben, and this is irresistible, to listeners and dancers.

I’ll return to the music of Franco et TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant  = Almighty) but for now, enjoy this slice of congolese soukous played by the master.

Lyrics in Lingala the main language of The Democratic Republic of Congo, being sung here by Lola Djangi Chécain, Josky Kiambukuta Londa, Wuta Mayi and Grand Maitre Luambo Makiadi AKA Franco.   With Decca on bass, Ntoya on drums, Simaro, Michelino  & Franco on guitars.