There's no doubt that Franco was, in every sense of the word, a big man in African music. Sometimes weighing in at 300 pounds, he also earned his nickname as "The Sorcerer of the Guitar," making it sing like no one before, with effortless, fluid lines. Also an accomplished composer and vocalist, Francois Luambo Makiadi remains a towering figure even in death, probably the greatest the Congo (later Zaire) has ever produced, and as the leader of the long-running O.K. Jazz group, he was one of the fathers of the modern Congolese sound. Born in the rural village of Sona Bata, his family moved to the capital, Leopoldville, when he was still a baby. By the age of ten he was already the master of a homemade guitar in the Belgian colony. Within a few years he was exposed to both European music, from missionaries, and the Cuban sounds that began to spread like wildfire on the radio. He made his recording debut at 15 as part of the house band for the Loningisa label, where bandleader Henri Bowane dubbed him Franco, a name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. Although he was getting plenty of studio work he also formed a band, which debuted in 1955 at the OK Bar, whose name he took a year later, calling the band O.K. Jazz. Within a year they were challenging the established stars, Dr. Nico's African Jazz, as the Congo's top group. Like many musical heroes before and since, Franco had his brushes with authority throughout his career, and the first came in 1958 when he was jailed for a motoring offense; he was released to waiting crowds, who hailed him back. In 1960 the Congo gained independence, and in the ensuing unstable political climate, Franco and O.K. Jazz, with its constantly changing personnel, headed off to Belgium to record. By 1965, with President Mobutu in power, things became better, and the band was without doubt the top name in the country, playing the Festival of African Arts in the newly-renamed capital, Kinshasa, the following year. Franco, as well as being a bandleader, guitarist, singer, and writer, proved to be a more than adept businessman, forming an empire to control his music, from the record company to spin-off bands (at one point he had two versions of O.K. Jazz — a European one and a Zairean one). He didn't shy away from political issues on his songs, which resulted in his spending a few nights in jail several times when he displeased the authorities. Throughout the '60s and '70s, Franco and his band toured and recorded constantly, although they never managed to crack America; a brief 1983 jaunt there didn't work out as hoped. In 1980, Franco was named a Grand Maitre, a huge Zairean honor, and thus became firmly entrenched as part of the ruling clique in a country that was undergoing massive economic problems. His writing style changed dramatically, switching to patriotic praise songs and tributes to rich fans — a 180 degree turn from the younger man he had once been. He'd ballooned up in weight in his more mature years as well, although on-stage and in the studio he could still be an incandescent player and singer. By 1987, rumors were circulating that Franco was sick, and certainly he was much slimmer. There was, perhaps, a hint in his solo recording from that year "Attention Na SIDA" ("Beware of AIDS") — and the disease would kill him in 1989, sparking four days of national mourning in Zaire befitting a musical genius and one of the country's icons for over three decades. But he left a big legacy. Not only did he record hundreds of albums, where he and the band stretched out their material, but in O.K. Jazz he offered a launching pad for many artists, including Sam Mangwana, Papa Noel, Mose Fan Fan, and a host more. Ultimately, though, he had the vision to push the music forward, to have bands that could really play and develop the rumba style, and cope with it when it speeded up into soukous during the late '70s. And he was justifiably revered as a guitar god, even if he never became fully known in the West.
BORNJuly 6, 1938