Franco Luambo

The Grandmaitre in New York

JON PARELES, November 30, 1983, The New York Times

All over Africa, the Zairian guitarist, singer and bandleader Franco is known as ‘’the sorcerer of  electric guitar,'’ or the ‘’grandmaitre.'’ Since 1956, Franco has led T.P.O.K. Jazz, based in Kinshasa and known not just in Zaire, but throughout Africa, in Europe and in the Caribbean - particularly Haiti, where Franco’s French lyrics are understood. Friday, Franco and T.P.O.K. Jazz will make their New York debut at the Manhattan Center, 34th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Franco is a leading figure in what is probably Africa’s dominant pop style, Congolese pop. (Zaire was formerly the Democratic Republic of the Congo). His songs usually move at an easy lilt, and often feature harmony vocals and horn riffs recalling Cuban music, as well as intertwined guitar licks derived from the patterns of the Zairian issanji, or thumb piano. On records, Franco’s band sounds less percussive than the Nigerian pop that has been filtering into the United States, but in Kinshasa people still dance to it all night long.

For Friday’s two-hour concert, T.P.O.K. Jazz will be a 17-piece band - drums, electric guitars, saxophones, trumpets, congas, singers and dancers - plus a 12-member traditional dance-and-percussion troupe, which will play its own set, then join T.P.O.K. Jazz. ‘’Tradition is a great influence in my music,'’ Franco said through a translator. ‘’In my music I put all my soul, all my spirit, and my soul is a traditional one, because I was born in a family that respected tradition. My mother was always singing traditional songs.

‘’The traditional music lacks some sounds, while the modern music has the guitars and the saxophones and many other things. But the spirit of the music is the same.'’
Franco, who is 45 years old, was born Francis Luambo. He has been playing guitar since he was a child, when he made his first instrument from an old can and nylon strings. At first, he played in the marketplace of Kinshasa, where his mother sold flour fritters. But by the time he was 12 years old he was already working professionally, and attracting notice, in a folk group called Watam.

‘’It was the first time in our country, in Kinshasa, that people had seen a little boy 12 years old playing a guitar bigger than himself,'’ he said.

Franco recorded his first song in 1953 with Watam, starting a string of hits that has continued ever since. He founded T.P.O.K. Jazz in 1956 with six instruments. ‘’At that time, there weren’t a lot of instruments - just singers, guitars and congas,'’ he said. ‘’But the evolution of our country brought new instruments, and I had to let the band grow.'’ T.P.O.K. Jazz now numbers 37 musicians, not including the traditional troupe; while Franco goes on tour, another T.P.O.K. Jazz band is in residence at his club in Kinshasa, Un Deux Trois (One Two Three).

Franco calls his style ‘’rhumba odemba.'’ He said: ‘’Odemba is a tree in our country. With this tree, they make a drink, and this drink is very, very exciting. It is quite an aphrodisiac. Cuban charanga, and many dances around the world, all have one root - Africa. My music is a style of rhumba that is very hot.'’

Used by permission.